Britain's hidden Aids victims

Despite an improving global picture, in parts of this country we are losing the fight against HIV.

Ernest Nkrumah opens the door of his tiny flat with a blue tooth chip clipped to his chin, and a loud African shirt. His home is rammed with desks, computers and trailing wires. Posters of HIV and Aids line the walls alongside pictures of Barak Obama, Michael Jackson and Ghanaian flags. Nkrumah's humble home on the top floor of a Peckham estate is also his Foundation. His mouthpiece lets him take calls from patients at anytime.

I went to see Nkrumah today for World Aids Day. I came armed with positive facts. The latest UN report paints an optimistic picture, with new HIV infections at their lowest levels since 1997 across the globe. Meanwhile, the number of people dying from Aids related causes fell from 2.2 million in the mid-2000s to 1.8 million in 2010. It remains terrifyingly prevalent, but the tide is finally turning. We are all learning to address it.

So when Nkrumah started telling me about the devastating discrimination happening on my doorstep, I was shocked.

He spoke about a community where family, friends and faith leaders do not recognise the condition as anything other than a curse. A significant group, who still see HIV as a "dirty illness for dirty people"; a just punishment for inappropriate behaviour. NHS staff are still being refused entry to my local churches to offer tests, and banned from mentioning the disease in front of religious buildings. South London radio stations continue to pump out disrespect for sufferers in different languages, and free contraception is not taken up.

"People are living underground, they do not want to come forward," says Nkrumah, "It's like living below the radar."

These stories are backed up by the numbers. According to the National Aids Trust, some 12 per cent of all HIV sufferers in the country now live in Southwark, Lewisham and Lambeth -- a tiny corner of South East London. The prevalence of diagnosed HIV in my borough more than doubled between 1996 and 2003, and over 11 people in 1,000 now have it. While the world and the country is making progress, the fight against HIV in parts of our country remains dark, hidden and is getting worse.

These problems persist beneath sterile NHS clinics and rosy-cheeked health workers. Nkrumah told me about finding patients who have haven't been out for years, people whose self esteem has dropped so low they won't even bother taking medication. His self-help groups have to meet in anonymous locations and pretend not to know each other on the street.

Another Aids worker told me about students with the condition being segregated in class. One patient saw a friend delete their number from their mobile in front of their face when they found out. In such a hostile environment, Nkrumah's flat is the only place patients from some communities trust to find understanding.

Although some 50 per cent of the country's HIV patients are now found in London -- largely associated with the relatively high numbers of gay and African men -- other areas suffer pockets of disproportionate prevalence, too. Manchester, Salford, Leicester and Blackpool are some of the urban areas where prevalence persists above the national average.

Any sense that we are disconnected from this problem is an illusion. Most of us won't see or hear about these cases, but they are playing out on our streets. Stigma in any community means people are less likely to be tested, less likely to be treated and more likely to spread the condition. We pick up increased infections and NHS bills. We lose talent from early deaths.

So when news came through today that there are massive cuts to international Aids funding, we will be the ones who suffer. Over a quarter of my ward are black African or Caribbean, and those that were not born abroad still go back to visit. We cannot afford to be insular on this.

If you're worried that global Aids charities seem too distant and unaccountable, think about visiting Nkrumah and his flat. Read the "thank you" text messages he holds up proudly from patients, and listen to him constantly giving advice through a headset that he rarely switches off. Right now he's struggling to compete with bigger charities for smaller funding pots. If you want to help or need it yourself, think about giving him a call.

Click here to visit The Ernest Foundation website

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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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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