Lebanon: mixing the young generation

Interference in Lebanon is rife, but the country’s internal politics are often misunderstood or igno

Last week the English-language Daily Star reported that Hezbollah was organising "jihadi tours" to the south of the country. On the trip, Lebanese of all religions were taken to the sites of key battles and the rather surreal border crossing with Israel at Fatima's Gate, before meeting some of the largely elusive Hezbollah fighters themselves.

Tim Llewellyn commented at the launch of Spirit of the Phoenix, his new book about Lebanon, that parallel trips are being organised whereby Lebanese Shias visit Christian areas of the north.

While regional interference in Lebanon is rife, the country's internal politics are often misunderstood and ignored. This is partly due to the large disagreement within the country about what it actually means to be Lebanese, and whether the country is the Switzerland or the mini-Balkans of the Middle East.

This absence of an agreed common identity, enshrined by the 1943 National Pact that codified the politics of Lebanon's confessional system, could be challenged by a process of greater interaction between the country's various communities.

In essence, this means the Lebanese getting to know Lebanon, in contrast to the current state of affairs whereby confessional green zones -- ranging from the southern suburbs to Mount Lebanon and the Chouf and on to Palestinian refugee camps -- are largely avoided by Lebanese from different backgrounds.

In particular, this mixing of a young generation, not bloodied by the country's 15-year civil war, could provide a source of stability that ultimately could make the country less permeable to the politics of more powerful regional states.

Such permeability makes Lebanon extremely attractive as a location for proxy warfare. Alliances crystallised on the departure of the Syrians in 2005 into a conflict between a pro-western alliance and a pro-Iranian alliance.

Upping the game

The current quiet in Lebanon is partly explained by the tortuous and bloody road to a government of national unity in 2009 where, despite the two alliances believing in substantially different things, they have managed to come together for the sake of the country (a bit like a more extreme form of the British Lib Dem-Conservative coalition).

Such a fine balance is forever being challenged by the gradually raised stakes against Iran.

On Monday the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, was in Washington, where President Barack Obama brought up concerns over reports of Syrian Scuds being transferred to Hezbollah. It would seem that another story of intelligence concerning "mysterious weapons" has placed a roadblock in the way of a US-Syrian rapprochement and therefore regional progress.

Lebanon's potential as a battlefield for the wars of others has been heightened by its position on the UN Security Council. As the net tightens on the Iranians, with the Russians and Chinese seemingly being brought round to sanctions, Lebanon's vote in any upcoming resolution will come into sharp focus.

A week before meeting Obama, Hariri was in Damascus consolidating his relationship with President Bashar al-Assad, whose country still casts a large shadow over Lebanon. Hariri's natural political stance would be to look west not east. Yet with millions of dollars in US aid on the line, he is likely to tread carefully at the UN.

Otherwise, the latest attempts of the Lebanese to live united in peace may quickly descend into the violent factionalism of regional conflict, a curse that has all too often blighted the country's modern history.

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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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