Away with the fairies

Spring has sprung at Findhorn, and memories of nature spirits are re-awakened

Spring has arrived, it seems. The daffodils are pushing up in my garden. Normally I would be pleased — new life, growth, all of that — but the spectre of global warming dampens my enjoyment. It feels too early. I am concerned about global warming though worrying about it will not keep it at bay - and I am also glad that the days are getting longer, the air is warmer and the flowers are coming up.

It is very beautiful here and I feel, as many of us do, that I am lucky to live in such a place. Many people are drawn to Findhorn initially by the Foundation, the community or the eco-village - but often they stay because of the land.

There are parts of Scotland that are more rugged and dramatic than this. The landscape is quite gentle, consisting of farmland, low hills, gorse-covered dunes and of course, the Moray Firth and Findhorn Bay. Most of the drama is occurs in the sky in the sunsets and cloud formations. There is, nevertheless, something very compelling about this place.

In the early days Dorothy Maclean believed that she received messages from the nature spirits, the entities that she called devas. Each plant species had one. The Sweet Pea Deva was her first contact. She also named devas with a larger remit such as the Landscape Angel, the energy that presides over this particular spot. In the founders’ minds all places had an angel that gave it its particular character. I find this particularly easy to understand when it comes to cities. The Angel of London is clearly not the same kind of creature and the Angel of New York. In any case the Findhorn Landscape Angel is a powerful presence.

It may seem that the area is special because the community is here, but one can also see it another way —the community is here because the area is special. The mundane explanation is that the community is here because this is where the Caddys and Dorothy ended up homeless and jobless. They would have said otherwise, that they were guided here because this spot was selected by God as part of a greater plan.

Whatever you may think about nature spirits and devas, belief in a real consciousness in nature was central to the Findhorn ethos in the early days. Back then there was no doubt in the community that successfully creating a flourishing garden on a sand dune was a direct result of communicating and cooperating with nature spirits. The rationalist would say that it had more to do with the fact that we have a nice little microclimate here - that is warmer and drier than is usual for this far north. The rationalist would argue that along with heavy composting, this accounts for their success. It was probably a bit of both — Peter listened to the fairies in the garden and read books on the subject.

Today we don’t talk so much about the nature spirits. Now it is all about energy efficiency and carbon footprints. We have become more down-to-earth and practical, and are adopting scientifically based technologies, like the living machine; a method of using plants to cleanse wastewater. This is as it should be. We need to be practical if we are to help preserve an environment in which we can not only survive but that provides us with the sense of connection and spiritual nourishment that we need to be healthy and whole.

Just recently, some people here celebrated Imbolc, the Celtic festival of Bride in which the goddess emerges from the darkness of the earth in her maiden form and heralds the beginning of spring. Others, like your regular contributor, Jonathan Dawson, are busy organising a conference on going carbon neutral that will be held next month. Both ways of relating to nature are present and thriving here and that’s a good thing because both are needed.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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