Scorsese: doesn't rhyme with "foresees". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

“Don’t say anything nasty,” my son pleads, as we head for a university open day

A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to another university, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him.

To Manchester, with the eldest boy, for the open day at the university. Such English roots as I have are from the west of the Pennines; for that reason, I had asked his mother to take him to Leeds for its open day. Besides, that was where she had gone, so she was better placed to make comments along the lines of: “This used to be really nice,” “There used to be a great pub here but I see they’ve pulled it down,” “I was sick here once,” and so on.

My memories of Manchester were patchy and dim. The last time I had been there was years and years ago, taking a train up with Mr Self so that we could drop in on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 programme, on which Will had a slot talking about books. “Welcome to Manchester,” I muttered, as we left the station. “Twinned with Mordor.” For it was dark and drizzly and cold and we were at the end of our tethers: the man sitting next to us had spent two hours swearing at an Action Man-sized doll of Michael Schumacher; indeed, he’d encouraged us to join in. (This sounds unlikely but is quite true; Will gave me a “Sorry, this kind of thing always happens to me” look.)

Manchester was much nicer this time round. For one thing it was, if not exactly sunny, at least unseasonably warm and we’d had a quiet journey up, without anyone abusing homunculi in the shape of German Formula One racing drivers. But because of a misreading of the rudimentary map handed out by the university, we walked the wrong way down Fairfield Street for a few minutes and it didn’t take us long before we were in one of those urban landscapes that seem beyond redemption. I hate making stupid, basic mistakes like this – I hate it only a little bit less when a child of mine reads the map on his phone better than I read my paper one – so we turned back, almost running into, as we did so, a couple of bedraggled, near-toothless women in conversation. Something about their attire seemed wrong and as we passed them I realised, from the embonpoint of the one and the short skirt/boots combo of the other, as well as the lipstick that served only to bring the barrenness of their surrounding features into sharp relief, that these were prostitutes. It was about noon.

I didn’t fancy explaining to the boy, should he have asked, what these ancient women were doing got up like that and, while he has spent much of his young life playing the Grand Theft Auto games, in which I gather prostitutes feature more than they do in real life, I doubt any of them look like that. But everyone was civil, the encounter passed without incident and we proceeded along to the campus.

The boy had anxieties of his own, I knew that. A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to — University, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him; the boy wanted no repetition of anything like that. But he wants to study and make films and I was quietly confident that no film-maker was ever going to – to give a comparable solecism – pronounce Scorsese as if it rhymed with “foresees”.

“Also,” said the boy, “don’t say anything nasty about Manchester.”

As if – even if the author of a horrible letter about me last week, in this very magazine, came from the city. I pointed out the grandiosity and permanence of the Victorian civic architecture, although, for instance, the Fire Station on Whitworth Street had long since been separated from its original purpose. Both of us marvelled at the way that it had black cabs and I said that Manchester had produced an inordinate number of great bands and that if the boy did not form or play in one for at least a couple of weeks while
he was here, I’d disown him.

Later, after I had had a pleasant nap in the lecture theatre while the relevant prof introduced us to the outlines of the film course, we sat eating our lunch on the campus green.

The boy, who was still discombobulated to think that you could have black taxis and double-decker buses and yet be in a city that was not London, reflected that he had hardly been to any other city in Britain; whenever he left London, it was either to go abroad or to go to the country.

This struck me as a very true and useful observation and one that should make Londoners a little bit abashed and a little less cocky.

“Leeds was really nice, though,” he added. To which I had nothing to say at all. 

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 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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