I have a problem with suspended coffees

The carbon credits of the coffee business are just a fad.

Suspended coffees are a recent phenomenon, atleast etymologically. Large hearted coffee house and restaurant patrons have been leaving behind 'suspended' meals and drinks for eons. The only difference being that now a spontaneous act of charity has been hijacked by the most pernicious of all tax avoiders in the UK.

Before we term this post as super-hipster balderdash, let's consider a few sobering truths. Starbucks played so truant with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that even Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to dish out a little cautionary word to the company. Cameron said that tax-avoiders "need to wake up and smell the coffee". How poetic.

You know you have over-stepped your tax-avoidance quota when the Tories lash out at you. Starbucks has certainly done that. It paid all of £8.6 million in corporation tax in its 14 years of trading in the UK.It sold £400 million worth of overpriced coffee, muffins and pretentious thingamajigs.

We all know the big bad wolf that devours independent coffee shops, we all know of the poorly paid baristas and the insufferable smug patrons who frequent the Starbucks of our world.

The Marketing Magazine calls Starbucks’ campaign as a way to improve its Corporate Social Responsibility credentials after last year’s tax evasion debacle. At the height of the tax scandal, Starbucks’ market share dropped significantly in the UK. Guardian reported in April this year that Starbucks’ market share had dropped by seven percent since last year. In the same period Costa Coffee's market share went up seven percent.

Suspended coffees are the planking of philanthropy. They are the carbon credits of the coffee business. They are a fad. And we have all fallen for them. We have been had.

By giving an act of kindness a name and a setting such as Starbucks cheapens the goodness. All of Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram are abuzz with posts about old weather-beaten homeless chaps in grimy jackets and week old stubbles supping on the cup of coffee. Cue boastful philanthropy.

Yes, it might do the odd down and out the good, and yes I might be seen as thrashing the very Piniata of all that is good in the world but what happened to good old altruistic do-gooding? What next; The Society for Getting Frail Old Ladies Across the Street? The I Sent a Penny to Poor Africans when I Bought a Bottle of Mineral Water Society?

It is not the act of goodness that rankles; it is reframing of it as a fad. Because fads don't last. Oh, and the very sanctimonious lot that think they are doing a world of good by leaving behind suspended coffees on the counters of Starbucks, Café Neros and of Costa Coffee are not only stuffing in money in the coffers of companies that avoid tax but are also giving them free publicity.

My problem is with how quickly we forgive and forget those that have played you and I. In its investor reports Starbucks reported massive profits and an expanding empire. Back in the UK it reported losses. Can we ever trust them?

Our dependence on coffee is clear to see. Any why not? One might as well substitute coffee for opium; De Quincey's’ Pleasures of Opium: “If taken in a proper manner it introduces the most exquisite order, legislation and harmony...communicates serenity and equipoise to all faculties, active or passive...the sort of vital warmth which is approved by the judgement.”  The humble coffee bean harvested, roasted and ground is worthy of a modern day paean of its own.

 It is by far the most perfect PR strategy ever. Nay, not a penny spent on it and you actually rake in money as the Che' crowd leave behind 'suspended' coffees.

Your coffee houses tended to be a place for the disgruntled hatching plots. They tended to be mutinous furnaces with the crackle of hot-blooded old and young. Today, they are boring monochrome monstrosities. The coffee is liquefied cardboard served in cardboard meant for a facsimile clientele.

Give me back the Italian espresso bars in Soho with their formica topped tables speckled with gum, where coffee was cheap and the caffeine content jarring, where failed actresses wore bootcut jeans with failing hems. Give me back my Pellici's and my Alfredo's. Give me back my messiness, my grubbiness, my coffee tinged darkness and dankness.

And never mind the suspended coffees.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

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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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