A glorious, magical evening

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

"This thing is a bloody death trap." Curly is examining one of the light fittings in the caravan. We are on holiday, for the first time since baby Moe was born. It’s a free holiday, obviously; we have persuaded the parents of a friend to lend us their caravan in Essex. They warned me it was a little bit run-down but I assured them that I didn’t mind. I don’t mind anything that allows me to escape the four walls of the slightly-too-small flat for a whole weekend. The most exciting expedition I have had for months is to Ikea Edmonton; at this point, the Thames Estuary seems about as remote and exotic as the Galapagos Islands.

So I wasn’t bothered that caravan No 18 was the only one on the otherwise pristine campsite to be crumbling, peeling and propped up on bricks, or that the door swung on one hinge when we opened it, or that the steps had rusted and fallen apart. In fact, I was charmed by its retro interior, with the little lace curtains and 1950s-avocado green sofas.

I am slightly less cool, however, with the large scorch marks on the ceiling. The caravan is fitted with ancient gas-powered bulbs, which you have to light with a match. Each one has created its own blackened ring on the plywood roof. Every time I look at them, I hear a sinister voiceover from one of those TV reconstructions: “little did the young family know that, as they slept, the caravan was filling with deadly carbon monoxide . . .”

Bugger it, we’ll just have to use a torch. I throw open the door and, remembering just in time that there are no steps, jump out into the field outside. Everything is bathed in glorious evening light. The grassy slope runs gently down towards undulating salt marshes and a scrubby little beach. Gulls are swooping over the water and wood smoke drifts from one of the little huts lined up along the shore. In the distance, the looming cranes of Harwich harbour are strung with winking lights.

Larry, in a frenzy of excitement, is already halfway down the track to the beach. “Hurry up, Mummy. We need to go to where the pirates are to find the treasure.”

The little stretch of sand is deserted. After trying – and sadly failing – to find the pirates’ treasure, we collect some driftwood and light a fire. Curly produces a packet of marshmallows and helps Larry choose a suitable toasting stick. The sun is pink and low over the horizon.

“The sun has got its jim-jams on because it’s about to go to bed,” I explain.

“They’re even nicer than my jim-jams,” Larry says approvingly. He dangles his marshmallow over the flame, where it promptly catches fire. We rescue it just in time; melted sugar fluff oozing through sticky black caramel.

“Mmmmmm,” he says as he chows it down. “I like holidays.”

So if we do all die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the night, I reflect later as we snuggle up in the creaky double bed, at least we’ll have ended it all with a magical evening.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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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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