You know you’ve hit a new low when you’re borrowing money off your children

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

It was, in the end, nothing less than a continuous pleasure having the daughter to stay for a fortnight. She’s gone now, and is missed; she’s off to stay for a while in a household in France that is, a generation up, infested with hippies.
 
These are real hippies – the kind who were at just the right age to inhale the full blowback of flower power in the mid-Sixties. They’re pushing their own sixties now and you can spot them a mile off, which is handy if you want to distance yourself. Remember the television ad for a bank around five or six years ago that featured a woman in a headscarf going on about feng shui? That was her, or close enough to make no difference. I stayed there once myself and gave them a present of some delicious local saucissonand cheese.
 
“Sorry,” she said as I was putting them in the fridge, “but I’m getting back in touch with my Jewish roots and would rather you didn’t put the meat and the dairy products on the same shelf.”
 
She is also very partial to wandering around the place completely starkers. This can come as a surprise at first but I suppose it is always well to have a memento mori around the place, like Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte with his skull inscribed with the legend “Et in Arcadia ego”. I, too, was, or am, in paradise. The ambiguity in tense is crucial.
 
Anyway, my daughter came to stay at just the right time; in other words, at that awkward period at the end of the month when the Lezard economy enters its austerity phase. For those who think I exaggerate when I claim poverty, the last ten days of July were spent working out how to live off £14 and for the first time in my life I started thinking about going to a payday loan company. I find something rather distasteful and dishonest about them, which probably doesn’t come as news to you, and I heard that if you borrow £100 off the best-known one and don’t pay it back for five years, you end up with a debt greater than that of the United States. I haven’t done the maths but I suspect it’s true.
 
In the end, I kept the ship afloat by borrowing small sums, here and there, off a) the Beloved, who gave me a funny look, and b) my friend Toby, to whom I had turned only because I’d already put the bite on c) my daughter. I think it represents A New Low when you’re reduced to that, no?
 
Toby always does his best to help me save face when he gives me my payday loans, which he always does at his local: either handing the money to me as discreetly as a drug dealer handing over his wares in a public place, or else, if scrutiny is unavoidable, pretending that it is money he owes me. This is very chivalrous of him but I think it is important not to dissemble in front of one’s own children and so peeled off a 20 then and there to hand to my daughter, who had come with me.
 
“There,” I said. “Let that be a lesson to you.” In the end, people paid me, and the sun came out, and this month I have resolved not to let things get like that again. Which is why it was probably unwise to treat myself, last sunny Thursday, to a plate of calamari and a carafe of house white at Casa Becci in Marylebone. The problem with austerity is that its relief can lead one into bad habits again. But what is this life if you can’t sit in the sunshine with some fried seafood, a chilled bottle and a copy of this magazine to read at leisure?
 
It is also well to recall civilised modes of existence. The other day I found that my sometime flatmate, this very magazine’s distinguished and gifted correspondent Laurie Penny, had received a death threat on Twitter. It is all too easy, for men at least, to dismiss these as the tiresome yelps of the mindless savage, but a message giving a specific time at which the firebomb in or near your house is going to go off can be the last straw if you get nothing but abuse every time you write an article.
 
It then occurred to me that, had this kind of thing been all the rage a year or so ago, Laurie’s house would have been my house, too, and there may well have been children of mine staying in it as well.
 
It is at this point that contemplation of the kind of scum who get their kicks out of this kind of thing becomes more than academic. I may have gently teased the hippies in the first few paragraphs of this piece, but really, what on earth is so funny about peace, love and understanding? 
Piggs banks accessible only via hammer. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496