In this week's New Statesman: Christmas issue, guest-edited by Richard Dawkins

In conversation with Christopher Hitchens | Carol Ann Duffy interview | Bill Gates | Philip Pullma

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In this 100-page special Christmas issue, the evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins brings together some of the world's leading scientists, thinkers and writers. Dawkins has contributed an essay, "The tyranny of the discontinuous mind", written the New Statesman leader column -- an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister on faith schools -- and travelled to Texas to conduct an exclusive interview with the author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. They discuss religious fundamentalism, US politics, Tony Blair, abortion and Christmas.

Microsoft's Bill Gates has written a column on the wonders of innovation, the political theorist Alan Ryan has written on Barack Obama, and there are contributions from some of the world's most respected scientists, including Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, and the space explorer Carolyn Porco. Dawkins has also commissioned essays from the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the neuroscientist Sam Harris -- reuniting in the NS the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism -- on human loyalty and free will, respectively.

Other contributors to the special issue include the human rights activist Maryam Namazie, the comedian Tim Minchin and the rabbi and broadcaster Jonathan Romain.

Elsewhere in the magazine, the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, speaks to the NS assistant editor Sophie Elmhirst about choosing morals over politics, reading poems at Occupy St Paul's and her "Christmassy relationship" with God, Philip Pullman defends fairytales and Kate Atkinson offers an exclusive short story, "darktime".

All this, plus the annual NS Quiz and regular sections including Raphael Behr in the Politics column on the Eurosceptic vision, guest writer Douglas Alexander offers to work with the Lib Dems over Europe, Christmas reviews from Rachel Cooke, Andrew Billen and Will Self in the Critics, and a poem, "Madam", by the late New Statesman contributor, Christopher Logue.

Richard Dawkins says:

To guest-edit a great magazine with the status of a national treasure is the literary equivalent of being invited to imagine your ideal dinner party - Christmas dinner, in this case - and then of actually being allowed to send out real invitations to your dream companions. Every acceptance is like a present off the Christmas tree, gratefully unwrapped and treasured.

At the same time, I couldn't help being daunted by the New Statesman's historic reputation for serious, well-written radical commentary, and by the need in my literary Christmas dinner to temper merriment with gravitas.

We have no reindeer, but four horsemen; no single star of wonder and no astrologers bearing gifts, but a gifted star of astronomy who knows wonder when she sees it; no kings from the east, but the modern equivalent of a king from the west; and wise men - and women - all around the table. Please join us at the feast.

Richard Dawkins guest edit of New Statesman

To subscribe to the New Statesman or purchase this special issue, click here

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at 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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