Signing off from The Staggers

After 18 months of blogging, I’m still convinced religion must be better understood.

After just under 18 months, this will be my last post on The Staggers, in a series that began as the "God Blog" but which then ranged beyond religion into world affairs – two subjects which in many countries are so intertwined that they cannot be regarded as separate areas of discussion – and the occasional foray into British domestic politics.

I think it would be fair to say that, as often as not, my thoughts irritated or even enraged many commenters, leading some to suggest that they should not have appeared on the website of a magazine with such a distinguished left-wing history. This stemmed at least in part from two views with which I would disagree.

First, that the New Statesman should always take a strongly atheist and avowedly secular stance. I pointed out the connection between religion and radicalism in my introductory column, "Age of Homo Religiosus", which I still believe rebuts this point. By way of example, I will merely reproduce the words Keir Hardie wrote in 1910:

I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.

If that was good enough for him . . .

The other argument I have tried to make – although I have been made very aware of the limits of my powers of persuasion in this regard – is that religion is an overwhelming fact in the world. Whatever certain readers may think, my aim has never been to advance the case for any religion, let alone proselytise, but instead to suggest that we would all benefit from understanding it rather than reducing it to extreme and backward-looking versions which we naturally find repugnant. This only serves the interests of fundamentalists of any or no faith.

Certainty is what makes me suspicious, whether it be an unquestioning belief in the current conclusions of sciences that are – as they should be – constantly changing as new discoveries are made, or in dogmas that do not allow for different circumstances and times, remaining stuck in the fabrics of societies that vanished centuries ago. I would include in this also certainties about the desirability of imposing our form of liberal democracy in countries with other histories and sets of values.

Any universalism always starts from a particular standpoint, and when it comes to how we think societies should order themselves the western standpoint is not unique; it also strikes me as arrogant to suggest that it is uniquely right. Those who maintain that the only justifiable left-wing position is to do just that may not realise how much that smacks of neo-colonialism in the many countries that have had quite enough of being told what to do by European and American powers. To me, it seems more naturally left-wing not to subject them to lectures and threats, but to regard and treat them as equals free to determine their own futures.

Second, and less importantly, there has been some objection to my occasional columns in support of Liberal politics. I have always thought of British Liberalism as being on the left – just look up Lloyd eorge's speeches against the privileges of the aristocracy, for instance – and that radical Liberals had much reason to be furious about the actions of the last Labour government.

Who betrayed the left during those 13 years? Not Liberals (who opposed the Iraq war, etc). Tribalism may trump principle in practice, but not, I would hope, in the pages of the New Statesman, which I believe should feel like home for Liberals just as much as it does for Labour, Green and all sorts of open-minded thinkers.

All of which brings me to thank the NS for having me as an online columnist for the last 18 months. The magazine's tolerance for divergent opinions is a tribute to its range and intelligence – and to its readers, however much they may have disagreed with me.

And on the subject of readers, my thanks to, too, to the regular commenters. I will mention just two: Daniele, who frequently took me to task, but from a consistent and coherent standpoint (and one that I respect more than Daniele perhaps imagines), and most especially to Lou, who was often a very welcome voice of support – precisely because he was the only one!

I will still be writing essays and book reviews for the magazine. Perhaps we will meet again in the comments section when future articles appear. Until then, as the Roman poet wrote, "Ave atque vale."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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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