Pope snubbed by Scottish Catholics

Thousands turn down the chance to see the Pope in person, and controversy over costs continues.

Controversy has broken out over the Pope's planned open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park, near Glasgow, with many parishes returning more than half of their allocated tickets for the event.

The organisers now reportedly fear that attendance will fall short of the 100,000 they expected to come to the Mass, which will cost £1.5m to stage. Each of Scotland's 450 Catholic parishes received a pro-rata ticket allocation based on the size of its regular congregation, but the Herald reports that, in some cases, only one-sixth of the parishioners are planning to take up their places at the papal event.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the same site on a sunny afternoon, with 300,000 people in attendance. The choice of this site has been interpreted as an attempt to re-create the success and popularity of that service for a pope who has been under siege in recent months.

The open-air Mass requires participants to be in their places hours before the two-hour service begins, and it is thought that fears about the weather and long travel times are putting people off. Distant parishes are also planning to watch the service via video link, rather than travel to the other side of the country to attend in person.

The service, which will take place on 19 September during the Pope's state visit to Britain, has also reopened the debate over the cost of the papal trip to Britain. Although it insists that pilgrims will not have to pay to attend the Mass at Bellahouston, the Catholic Church has asked each parish to make a donation of £20 per attendee -- an obligation that many parishes have passed on to their parishioners.

The total cost of the visit, which will be borne by Britain, as the host nation, provoked outrage in some quarters when it was revealed that it could exceed £20m. As well as asking for "voluntary donations" from the public to cover the cost of specific events, the Catholic Church is also asking members to donate towards the overall cost of the visit, which it currently estimates at £7m.

The Church is also selling merchandise to coincide with the trip. T-shirts, fridge magnets and mugs are available, as well as more conventional religious artefacts.

Besides being hit by low attendance figures, the Pope's visit could suffer from a lack of television exposure, after BBC workers threatened to strike during that period (which will coincide with other major events such as the Last Night of the Proms) over pension disputes. Workers are being balloted on the issue; a result is expected in the week before the Pope is due to arrive in Britain.

Add to this the stated intention of Richard Dawkins and others to attempt to arrest the Pope for his alleged complicity in the child abuse scandal while he is on British soil, and we could be in for an eventful visit come September.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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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