Make sure you can speak freely

Online groups should try to maintain their own sites rather than piggy-backing off other sites like

Many of the strategies, techniques and tools that have been developed in the last ten years of mainstream web use are struggling to make the transition to the Web 2.0 world.

Media sites have had to turn from being one-way publishers of information into conversational spaces while more and more of us are using social network sites to manage aspects of our online and offline lives. We seize on new services (like Twitter and Seesmic), new sites (like Dopplr) and new platforms (especially the mobile web), caring little for the privacy implications, learning curves or complexity of the relationships we are now able to build.

This is a real challenge for services built by volunteer groups and local sites that seek to reflect their community, because they may have neither the expertise nor the desire to embrace the Web 2.0 world, but at the same time they want to offer something useful and engaging to their users.

And not everyone is as lucky as MySociety, with some of the world’s best programmers and database experts working on their projects.

One possibility is just to piggy-back on the sites that are already out there, and many groups already use YouTube to host their video content, run a blog on Blogger or Typepad, manage mailing lists through Google Groups, and work within the limitations of their chosen platform. Many political campaigns now have Facebook pages to carry the message, and some seem to be entirely Facebook-based.

Doing this is an attractive and low-cost option, but it carries several risks. The first, and most obvious, is that uploading content onto one of these services puts it into someone else’s hands, and the terms of the license you agree to when you hand over your pictures, videos, documents or memberships list may not be very balanced. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Bebo and the rest all reserve the right to use your work for their own marketing and promotional purposes, for example.

You’re also stuck with the terms and conditions imposed by these commercial services, with no real redress if they decide to close down your group, censor your video or remove your carefully crafted campaign material. By and large these sites are less interested in free speech than in building their user base, selling advertisements and making money. If your group’s desire for self-expression conflicts with that then you will not be welcome.

A better model is to have your own site and your own service, but to use the various free offerings, social network sites and the rest as amplifiers and backups. If you have your own blog then putting videos on YouTube means you never have to worry about hitting bandwidth limits, but if you make sure that people watch them through your site by embedding them in posts then if YouTube gets nasty you can move to another service without losing your audience.

It may require more programming expertise, but even here some rather sophisticated software is freely available to download. It’s fairly straightforward to install Wordpress on a rented server, giving you an easily-tailored blog with widgets, embedded content, trackbacks and comments, all under your control. And if you run your own mailing list, however basic, then you can decide when and how to send messages instead of relying on Facebook’s clumsy facilities.

It may not be necessary to seize the means of digital production in order to change the online world, but these days it’s wise to have your own small factory – or rather, server - in case you come up against the limits imposed by the commercial providers.

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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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