The Eye in the Sky

Eyes aren't always symbols of humanness, as a brief perusal of the British transport system shows.

"We're watching out for you", proclaims a Network Rail poster in bold letters underneath an unnecessarily large picture of a CCTV camera. I can't be the only person who, every time I see the poster, misreads it as "We're watching you".

Given the amount of money I imagine Network Rail allocates poster campaigns such as this one, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if this "misreading" were intended. Normally, when we're treated to a black stencilled picture of a CCTV camera, it's to remind us not to steal, or smoke in the wrong place, or vandalise, or sit in the first class carriage. So naturally, these big blue posters with pictures of looming CCTV cameras on them make the skin crawl before the text beneath has had a chance to reassure commuters of how much Network Rail cares about them.

Queensland Rail in Australia are also at it. On their website they reassure their paranoid customers with an image of a bold exclamation mark inside a big red triangle. This symbol is more commonly associated with the word "danger" than "safety". Yet without a hint of irony, they go on to assure customers that they want "to help you feel safe and secure", before announcing that "we're watching out for you with 6,800 CCTV cameras".

At least Luas tramways in Dublin avoid the doublespeak and freely admit, in what could be a paraphrase of the Big Brother mantra, "CCTV is watching you".

 

Another publicity campaign that seems to deliberately subvert the message it purports to be sending is the series of tube posters that resemble the dust jackets to a 70s reprint of Nineteen-Eighty Four. Stylised drawings of eyes, ears and lips bounce out from every wall of the underground, reminding law-abiding citizens to report "anything suspicious" to "our staff" - a nebulous and undefined body of TfL security personnel, probably by now outsourced to Serco, who presumably lurk behind those creepy, flashing, beeping mobile bin machines in flak jackets and ski masks, ready to frisk anyone who looks a bit too Muslim.

In New York, a similar "security" campaign has churned out thousands of bright yellow posters that boast "there are 16 million eyes in the city". In order to remind people what eyes are, the poster depicts 12 sets of them. One can't help but be reminded of the "Big Brother is Watching You" poster in Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose "eyes follow you about when you move".

San Francisco International Airport went for a more minimalist approach with their sign inviting travellers to report suspicious activity, but the end product was no less creepy for it:

"Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes" - the 2002 Transport for London (TfL) posters that resemble the front cover of a Philip K Dick paperback - has a distinctly Juche ring to it, resonant of Bradley K Martin's authoritative title on North Korea: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. Which should come as no surprise, given that Britain has more CCTV cameras per capita than North Korea does.

These posters, purportedly erected to reassure London citizens, are eerily reminiscent of over-the-top book sleeves for dystopian novels:

There is a serious point here, though. A study by Newcastle University, which found that people put more money in honesty boxes when a picture
of eyes was on the wall, inspired West Midland Police's "Operation Momentum" - a poster campaign with the tagline "We've got our eye on criminals."

The strategy is not a new one. The US Homeland Security Department used the spectre of a (not very subtly disguised) German-atron peeking over the next door fence to encourage curtain-twitchers the nation over to join in the fight against Nazism.

It seems the West Midland's strategy may well have trickled down to the Met and TfL, who have both incorporated pictures of eyes as central aspects of their poster campaigns. The image of an eye gives the impression of surveillance, even if there is no one doing the surveilling. It contributes to a psychological climate of paranoia and self-consciousness that arguably does away with the need for actual CCTV cameras. The image of a CCTV camera itself is perhaps more powerful in this respect. CCTV cameras make us think of surveillance, but with that additional degree of removal from the surveillor. Pictures of CCTV cameras, or dehumanised eyes like those the TfL assures us we are "secure beneath", create the impression of being subjects in a system - one that is not human, and that we are powerless to affect.

Something else non-human is the tannoy voice at King's Cross station. Tannoy lady has a mechanical rasp devoid of inflection or emotion. One imagines she has a very limited sense of humour. The metallic clang of her voice reverberates around the station, reminding passengers that
"security personnel patrol this station for purposes of safety and security". In the spirit of belt-tightening, they may well have cobbled together this humanoid's repertoire from the sweepings of film reel that didn't make the final cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I feel like I'm in Children of Men and always half expect the train to roll past a cage full of infertile refugees.

Anyone worried that the state is becoming too voyeuristic can find solace in the fact that surveillance is, in a salutary example of the Big Society in action, being outsourced to ordinary people. The website Internet Eyes offers lonely people who are bored of masturbating the opportunity to monitor live CCTV feeds and report suspecting wrongdoing or "suspicious activity" to business owners. In a plug on the website, founder and CEO Tom Morgan explains that citizens can "assist our already overworked police and security staff by becoming that extra pair of eyes."

There is clearly great power in the image of human eyes. And often, far from being comforting or human, they are intimidating and soulless, feeding a paranoia that can be harnessed for political ends. From the Sun God Ra, to the Illuminati triangle found on the US dollar, to WWII and current anti-terrorism propaganda, eyes have been used as symbols of power, to impress, discipline and threaten. We would do well to remember the power of such symbolism the next time we pass a poster purporting to make us feel safe.

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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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