The people who can't use Crossrail

London's major new transport project is inaccessible to thousands for a saving of just 0.2 per cent of its budget.

Crossrail – the new, £14.5bn rail line due to open in 2019 – has come under fire today for not being fully open to women. Seven of the stations, including four in London, have been designed with a sensor that means it will be physically impossible for anyone without a Y chromosome to cross the platform. Mechanisms to address the censors are available but bosses have no plans to implement them, leaving women without full access. 

Women’s groups are understandably outraged. 

“It’s simple discrimination,” said a spokesperson for Transport for All, the group set up to address the continual exclusion of women from the use of public transport. “It’s offensive that in this day and age a woman can’t gain full access to public transport. And all because of a characteristic a person can’t help that their body has. It just doesn’t make sense. How did the many people behind Crossrail think it was okay to plan a new, major public transport link that excluded a section of the public?”

There are rumours that several other stations will only be accessible to people with light skin due to further sensor problems on the platforms, but, other than platitudes during interviews, the Mayor’s office has failed to provide any concrete commitment to make the necessary changes.

Only joking! None of that’s happening at all, of course. Or rather, it’s only happening to disabled people. Seven of the stations for Crossrail will not have step-free access to platforms, meaning wheelchair users and other disabled people won’t be able to use them. So that’s fine, then. 

It’s not like anyone involved in Crossrail could predict that disabled people might need to get around or that, you know, they even existed. They’re often shut in their house and it’s easy to forget them. 

It’s not like there was a global sporting event that specifically highlighted the inclusion of disabled people, held exactly a year ago in the same city. Or that the accessibility of public transport was actually featured in the bid for that event.

Plus, it’s not as if Crossrail is a long-term or expensive project where these sort of issues had a chance to come up. Massive infrastructure improvements that cost almost £15bn worth of public money are typically designed and approved in one afternoon on the back of a Tube map. And no matter what the PC brigade say, you can definitely put a price on equality and a human being’s right to be part of society. Sure, when it comes to making Crossrail fully accessible that price is only 0.2 per cent of the total cost, but when it comes to public money, you have to be careful not to waste it. Other than building a vast, expensive new piece of public transport that isn’t suitable for some of the public, obviously. 

As Tanni Grey-Thompson told me for the New Statesman last week, no disabled person expects existing public transport to be perfect. But what’s Crossrail’s excuse? At this point, it’s just those in power actively excluding certain people from the transport everyone else uses, and as a consequence, mainstream society. But it’s only disabled people, right? They really should be used to it by now. 

Coinciding with a week of action by Disabled People Against Cuts, on Thursday 29th August Transport for All are leading a protest against the inaccessibility of Crossrail. You can lend your support here.

The Crossrail tunnel. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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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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