Why I couldn't care less about being important

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

Here you go, babe.” Curly hands me four crisp £20 notes. I flick through them wonderingly – this is a highly unfamiliar sensation – before tucking them away in a drawer. My housekeeping money. The phrase seems like something from another age.

My decision to give up paid work – not to mention the near-nervous breakdown that preceded it – appears to have focused Curly’s mind. In just a couple of weeks, he has drummed up two Saturday jobs and has enrolled on an evening course in carpentry. I didn’t even nag him; he just did it. And now he’s done it, he seems rather pleased with himself. There is something newly brisk and confident in his bearing.

“See you later!” The boys and I wave as he heads off for the station in his smart shirt, for all the world like a family from a 1950s TV show. As the door closes, I wonder what to do with the day. Shall I make jam? Bake a cake? Knit something? The last time I tried to knit anything was in primary school and it did not end well but, all of a sudden, I wouldn’t rule it out.

I’m not sure what has happened to me. I used to be thrusting and ambitious. I used to dash around in taxis, schedule high-level meetings, take off for Brazil at a moment’s notice. I used to want to be important and influential.

At the moment, I can’t think of anything worse than being important and influential. The very idea sends a shiver down my spine. I would definitely be a big disappointment to the sisterhood, if the sisterhood were to find out what I’m up to. Only the other day, there was an article in Sunday Times Style by an important woman telling us we should all try harder to be more important. For a brief moment, I wondered if she was right. Then I threw the magazine into the bin and squidged a dirty nappy in there, too, right on top of her smug, self-righteous face.

The funny thing is, actually, I don’t give a monkey’s left ball about all that. I don’t care about anything except for being calm and happy and enjoying my life again. Once Moe is down for his morning nap, I take my copy of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course off the shelf, blow off the dust and turn to the jam section.

“Slice one kilo of fresh pink rhubarb.” Aha. Funnily enough we got rhubarb in the Abel & Cole box this week. I get it out of the fridge and rinse it off. Larry appears in the kitchen. “Mummy, I’m bored.”

“Why don’t you help me make jam?”

“Jam’s boring.” Busted. I snap Delia shut and put down the knife.

“What do you want to do, then?”

“I want to go to the pub.”

“You what?!” “That’s what Ben’s mummy does. Ben gets crisps and plays Simpsons pinball.”

I have to hand it to Larry. That suggestion is so wrong and yet . . . so right. Feeling everso- slightly furtive, I ping a quick text to Ben’s mummy and take one of the twenties back out of the drawer.

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.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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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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