Cram a load of geeks in a building...

Corbet Place in the Truman Brewery, East London is heaving with geeks and city workers, drawn by the lure of an open bar. At one end of the space people are swapping stories over a beer, while at the other handful of earnest looking men are hovering around a raised stage, with some kind of presentation projected onto the wall behind. One picks up a mike, and starts trying to draw the attention of a crowd; "Okay everybody, lets all do this together. One, two, three.... ssshhhhHHHHHhhhhhhh.." A good half of the bar joins in shushing, and the compere, Christian Alhert, introduces Minibar.

Minibar is a monthly event for designers, programmers and geeks of all kind with big ideas, to meet people with the means to turn their ideas into actual sustainable enterprises, with funding and support, and this month the line up was all about social Innovation.

From Social Innovation Camp we had the two winning teams presenting the fruits of their labours; and continuing the theme, part of the team at torchbox who worked on the Carbon Account were in appearance, along with Dan McQuillan from Make Your Mark.

First up was the team behind 'Prison Visits', working to shine a light on the conditions for people visiting loved ones in prison, by letting visitors write about their experiences, and direct that feedback to people who can make improve conditions. Improving the conditions of family visits in prison is proven to improve prisoner behaviour, increase family cohesion, reduce reoffending rates, and crucially lessen the impact that having a parent behind bars has on an inmate's children. There's also been some progress on the business model too since we last looked at it; there's talk of adapting a similar approach to that of Patient Opinion. Patient Opinion is a website that performs a similar function to the prison visits site with NHS Trust hospitals, and stays afloat financially by licensing the data feeds of patient feedback in a format the trusts can use, so the right feedback goes to the right people, and it's early days, but the team are hopeful about finding a way to make the prison visits website sustainable.

Following on came the team who worked on Enabled by Design, a site set out to use design to make lives for people with disabilities better, by offering novel solutions to mundane but necessary problems, or by giving a voice to the people who have to use the mobility aids on the market at present. Users affected by debilitating diseases like multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease have to make to do with equipment that looks and feels like it was designed 60 years ago, and by creating a shared space for the users of the tools to converse with the designers and manufacturers, Enabled by Design hope to see better designed tools that stop making user's homes look like hospitals.

The 'cram a load of geeks and designers in a building and give them 48 hrs to make the world better' model piloted by Social Innovation Camp so far has delivered some interesting projects, and while it's hardly going to replace the current government's current love of massive big budget IT projects tomorrow, the fact that some of the funding came directly from the cabinet office suggests we may see more of these kinds of events in future.

Which by and large, can only be a good thing.

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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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