The War on Christmas: Part 94

The annual hysteria is manufactured and unnecessary and needs to stop.

Well, it's that time of year again. The mother of all manufactured controversies. It's the War on Christmas!

Once again, Christians are lashing out at secularists and the non-religious under the pretence that Christmas is under attack. In the United States, there is renewed controversy over billboards and bus ads carrying atheist messages.

The Fox News host Bill O'Reilly claimed the posters were designed only "to offend people who enjoy Christmas". So what are the messages that are causing such dire offence during this holiest of seasons? "Millions of people are good without God", "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" and "You know it's a myth. This year, celebrate reason!".

Can someone explain how encouraging people to be intellectually honest about their beliefs is offensive?

These posters and slogans are not designed to convert believers into non-believers. Even the most controversial slogan ("You know it's a myth") is clearly aimed at people who already think that way. It is a means of encouraging non-believers to be public about who they are and what they do or do not believe. Is that so dangerous?

Why is it OK in the US and in Britain to plaster Christian slogans and posters everywhere, but when secular causes do the same it is "an attack" on Christianity and on Christmas? It seems to happen all the time.

Remember when the "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" slogans appeared on buses and billboards in 2008. Or, the example that won't seem to go away, that Birmingham City Council once had a winter marketing campaign that it called "Winterval". There are always these types of stories in the news, and they are totally manufactured and utterly unnecessary.

In contrast to these "attacks", there is the Christian side of the argument. I see a poster at a bus stop every morning on the way in to work which depicts an image of a child in the womb with a halo around its head. The poster reads "Christmas starts with Christ". Is that not the same thing that these atheist posters are doing, but for Christianity? Of course it is. Yet, where is the controversy? I have seen nobody complain about these posters and have seen no news stories about them causing offence. Christian preaching is apparently fine, whereas atheists are held to a much harsher standard because people don't like what they're saying.

As an atheist, I could find the poster very annoying, mostly because the only way in which Christmas starts with Christ is in the word. The celebration itself pre-dates Christianity by a great many years. Stories were being told of gods being born as men on 25 December to a virgin mother for centuries before Jesus was ever reported to have lived. Christmas the celebration does not start with Christ. Christianity hijacked 25 December from paganism in order to make conversion easier. After all, if you still celebrate on the same day, what difference does it make?

Despite that, though, I am not going to demand that the poster be taken down, or claim that secular society is "under attack", or anything like that. That is because the person or organisation that commissioned the poster was well within its rights to do so. Just like atheist groups have the right to encourage people to be honest about their non-belief. It is not an attack. It never is.

The "War on Christmas" rhetoric has become a perpetual-motion machine of modern journalism. Every year, reactionary journalists will howl about some "PC" measure that is waging war on Christmas, and not-so-reactionary journalists will have to take their time to debunk the claims.

I appreciate the irony that, by writing this piece, I have become a cog in the perpetual "War on Christmas" machine, but it really does need to stop. There is no war on Christmas. Let people put up posters expressing their beliefs, and let people celebrate the season however they choose. I, for one, will be indulging my Christmas tradition of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol.

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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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