On Winterval and the Mail

Politicians like Eric Pickles have bought into this bogus mythology. No longer.

All my Christmases have come at once with an early gift from the Daily Mail's new Corrections and Clarifications column. "We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas," the newspaper writes today, in response to reader complaints about a Melanie Phillips article.

For media blogging nerds like me, frantically typing this post in a slightly darkened spare bedroom to get rid of the sense of ennui and despair, this is a truly amazing day. For years we've been banging on about media myths and stuff having been made up; for years, we've been patronised or ignored, while politicians like Eric Pickles have happily bought into the bogus mythology as it suits their agenda.

My fellow media blogger Kevin Arscott should take a bow for his stellar essay on Winterval, its origins and its development as a fable that apparently showed the PC Brigade had gone well and truly mad, rather than the throwaway marketing exercise from Birmingham City Council it actually was. Many other bloggers have been pushing the issue for years now. No, Winterval didn't replace Christmas, we said. No, Christmas wasn't renamed Winterval, we said; that wasn't it at all.

The more noise we made, the more it seemed that the stories would return. Winterval was the politically correct way of referring to Christmas; it was taking Christ out of Christmas; it was part of the PC killjoys' attempts to de-Christianise Britain and bring us all into an Iron Curtain world of secularist misery. The myth kept on coming back -- every year, at Christmas time, or before.

These "X is being banned" stories are all essentially the same, when you boil them down. Whether it's poppies being banned by troop-hating fast food franchises, England shirts being banned by immigrant bus drivers or Christmas being banned by killjoy councils scared of offending minorities, the tale follows a standard pattern. The totemic object -- the poppy, the England shirt, the baby Jesus -- is being rejected because of a prevailing spectral force of injustice -- political correctness, jobsworths, The Left and so on -- and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Get angry now!

People do get angry. Facebook campaigns begin. Statements in CAPITAL LETTERS reverberate around Twitter. A little later down the line, when the anger has subsided and the truth is revealed to be not quite as terrible as it was at first made out to be, it doesn't get put right, and so sits around to be woken up again at the next Remembrance Day, or Christmas season, or England appearance in an international tournament.

Now, thanks to the Mail's sensible and ethical new policy of correcting and clarifying where possible, there's the chance to see these things rectified. There it is, in black and white: Christmas was not renamed Winterval. Whenever someone tells you it was, you can point out that the Mail admitted it wasn't. You can even link to the original piece, where a correction has been made underneath the article.

Amid the praise that should be given to the Mail for correcting the Phillips article, there is a slight note of caution. This may well be seen, as Phillips said herself in the original piece, as "the Left" (capital L essential) "muzzling rational debate". Why, it's even got to the stage nowadays where you can't even say something that isn't true in a national newspaper without having to correct it, thanks to the Left! The forces of political correctness and the Thought Police have become so insidious, they've managed to make Paul Dacre willingly clarify Daily Mail articles in the Daily Mail.

Well, I don't think anyone on The Left (I might capitalise the T as well, to make us sound even more SINISTER) wants to see "rational debate" muzzled. It's the "saying things that aren't true" bit; for some reason -- we're just awful people essentially, and hate freedom -- that winds us up a bit. By all means let's have a rational debate about how THE LEFT (it's nicer all in capitals, I think) are shutting down debate by only allowing handsomely paid right-wing columnists to say the same things repeatedly all the time.

But saying things that aren't accurate in a mass-circulation newspaper isn't a very good thing to do, morally or journalistically. Get the facts right and we'll have a debate about the rest.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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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