I'm proud to be a member of the "Humourless Left"

Is the Jubilee fawning really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

As we prepare to take down our soggy union jack bunting ahead of the ceremonial handover to St George flags on car roofs, I’m left with questions. Is this really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

Yes, I’m glad of a day off (though it’s unpaid in my case). But I’m also allowed to have a look at what’s happened over the past few days and marvel at the sheer madness of it. Aren’t I? Or must we be shackled to the warble of jubilation, the hearty cheer and the wave of a plastic flag, above every sliver of criticism? Is no mockery allowed?

I fully accept the moniker ‘the humourless left’. Yes, we are the buzzkill, killing your buzz, your fading glow of empire and ‘wasn’t it fun when we were starving people to death and putting people in concentration camps, and now all we do is run call centres’. That’s fine. I am the Humourless Left, left without humour or fun at a time when no-one has any jobs or money while we watch giant golden things belonging to one family. 

But I have just seen, on television, Huw Edwards looking out of a window at the Queen passing by in a coach. He did it, and I saw it. It was as if the BBC were justifying the enormous expense of this four-day royal love-in by that moment. “See, I can see it through the window!” Huw was trying to say. And all I could think of back was “Oh, well good for you, mate.”

There have been similar moments of bafflement right across the weekend. I’ve seen Emma Bunton talking about bunting. I’ve seen Ronnie Corbett provide narration of a room full of people eating their lunch. I’ve seen Stevie Wonder and Will.I.Am wish her majesty a happy birthday, and suffer the tsunami of criticism from the Twitter pedants as a result – like we even know when either of the Queen’s birthdays is meant to be. I’ve seen people talking about boats for what seemed like a lifetime, but which was only really six hours of live TV. Boats! People on boats for six hours.

As ever, the BBC’s rivals have used this occasion as a stick with which to beat Auntie – sometimes fairly, sometimes not. It’ll be interesting to see when the accusations of ‘leftist bias’ return to the corporation after these days in which everything’s been wonderful, and everyone loves the Queen, and everyone everywhere has been just like the perma-grinning mobs on the Mall.

We’ve even seen the biased anti-Tory BBCCCP bring in David Cameron for a couple of hassle-free cosy chats about how much he loves the Queen as much as we plebs do at home, at a time when his ministers are raising fresh questions about their conduct. Give it a week, though, and the usual suspects will be railing about how the Beeb is a hive of pinko nastiness.

Truth is, in the cold light of day and with the right royal hangover receding, you can only broadcast what's there. The Big Society flotilla was a soggy shambles – bring along the little ships from Dunkirk and have done with it. The Queen’s concert was enjoyable enough, though not always for reasons of quality – poor Cheryl Cole (sorry, Cheryl) wailing away into the evening air will live long in the memory, but not for the right reasons.

And of course, there are questions now being raised about the free labour used to steward the billionaires’ fun – obviously by the Humourless Left, who can’t just sit back and anaesthetise their critical faculties for four days, mewling idiots that we are. I dare say there were lovely scenes in communities up and down the country getting together, but that was hardly touched by what we saw on TV – it was the usual Londoncentric celeb-heavy drivel.

It’s just that I feel almost apologetic about pointing this out, like I shouldn’t be doing it. I’m not ruining anyone’s fun, but come off it – if you think we sold ourselves as a nation of anything other than willing subjects prepared to bow and scrape to our betters, I think you’re mistaken.

Jubilee: A royal supporter holds Queen Elizabeth and Union flags as people wait on the Mall for the carriage procession of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496