Sian goes to Climate Camp

I wonder how many people have decided this week that, actually, they don’t think expanding airports

I joined the Camp for Climate Action near Heathrow on Sunday, a few hours before the start of the 24 hours of ‘mass action’. As I walked up from the A4, chased by the dreadful roar of planes landing behind me every 30 seconds, I wondered if I was heading in the right direction. Where were the posters and stickers on every lamppost – the typical signs of being in the area of a demonstration? Around me an ordinary west London morning was happening, with people picking up papers and catching buses as usual.

Then I remembered. The people I knew were at the climate camp were real greens; not into careless vandalism, but practising what they preached; literally ‘being the change’ they wanted to see; building a camp based on self-reliance and low-impact living. I bet myself right then that there wouldn’t be single piece of non-biodegradable litter left in that field at the end of this.

I finally got confirmation I was on the right road when a police roadblock came into view, followed by the camp itself. I went in, past the Met photographers and a press enclosure worthy of a Big Brother eviction (but with much longer lenses).

The atmosphere was satirical, serious, determined and friendly. I got my bearings, bumped into plenty of people I knew - some I hadn’t seen for ages - and everyone I spoke to was excited at the attention created by the camp. The compost toilets were excellent and, after a short visit, and joining up with some fellow (capital G) Greens, I discovered the range of ‘actions’ I could take part in.

I decided to go for whatever the biggest group was doing, which was a press photo followed by a ‘family-friendly’ march. Joining a large group preparing for the press call under a banner with the best slogan I’ve seen in ages: ‘We are armed – only with peer-reviewed science’. We all took copies of the executive summary of a Tyndall Centre report to attach to our hands (“Without swift action to curtail aviation growth, all the other UK sectors will have to almost completely decarbonise by 2050 to compensate” - quite).

After brandishing our scientific reasons for protesting at the press, we set off for the village of Sipson – along with nearby Harlington, set to be subsumed under the planned third runway and new flightpath. Other, smaller, groups took a range of routes to the headquarters of BAA, of which several made it. They are still dug in there as I write, while others have reached the British Airways cargo terminal.

At Sipson we were joined by protesting locals and marched – very slowly thanks to the police halting things regularly for no reason – along the route of the proposed runway, accompanied by music from the Rinky Dink pedal-powered sound system.

The self-discipline and seriousness of the camp has wrongfooted most of the press pack. Earlier in day, I was sent to review the Sunday papers on Radio 4, so had to read almost every word of the coverage – of which there was a huge amount. On its own, getting so much attention for a neglected, yet massive, failing in government policy is a real achievement. But I also noticed how the nature of the coverage had changed over the week.

Every paper had sent in undercover reporters in an attempt to root out any shred of trouble or hypocrisy they could find. But their attempts to paint the protestors as a fringe outfit failed by their own admission. Again and again these journalists brought up caricatures of the green movement, but all were forced to qualify their reports with phrases such as ‘of course the protestors are right’ and ‘I found it hard to find anyone without a PhD’.

The thing is, this is no longer the 1990s, and protest camping is no longer something only a tiny minority can conceive of. The policy changes the campers want to ram home with this week’s actions are now desired by a majority, and there are now many, many people with first-hand experience of direct action who make up the constituency the camp emerges from.

These might include people whose first experience of marching was in February 2003, who then joined the World Development Movement or got on a coach to Edinburgh with Oxfam for the G8 in 2005. Not flying and holidaying in the UK also means that, for many more, camping holds no fear.

Will the camp succeed? I wonder how many people have decided this week that, actually, they don’t think expanding airports and ruining all our other efforts to stop climate change is a good idea. Whatever the other achievements of this week’s camp, whole pages seriously questioning the government’s aviation policy – including in the Mail on Sunday – can only help.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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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