2012: a dismal year to be a republican

It has been a slam-dunk year of success for the House of Windsor.

If some Machiavellian palace official is working off a strategic grid, making carefully-crafted announcements designed to maximise support for Britain’s ancien regime they couldn’t have planned yesterday's developments any better.

The news that a royal child is on the way tops out a dismal year for po-faced republicans. 2012 has unquestionably become the year of enforced patriotism and a firebreak for declining support for the monarchy, with four out of five of us now supporting its retention.

A strained insistence to join in and be part of it all has come in waves this year. First it was the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Next it was the European Football Championships. Then the London Olympics. Now it’s the royal baby. Even stalwart republicans have to concede they are on the wrong side of public opinion and in mortal danger of sounding like mean-spirited elitists. Precisely the criticism we usually level against the monarchy.

So what is a republican to do? Some of this phenomenon is quickly explainable. The jubilee was an extension of the Royal Wedding fever from last year, while admiration of the Queen as dedicated public official transcends the divide between those who take a 16th century view that kings and queens are best placed to rule us and those us who hold to the new-fangled 18th century view that they are not.

Meanwhile this summer’s twin sporting leviathans: the European Football Championships and the Olympics are golden calves for our post-religious, post-political society to worship over. The lure of tribal sports-spectating (clearly not actually playing given our problems with obesity) is now our national religion. It makes offering fealty to monarchs look positively modern.

So here we are at the end of 2012, a slam-dunk year of success for the House of Windsor, with grateful subjects falling over themselves to embrace a neo-patriotism of public-emoting, vicariousness, tribalism and sentimentality.

All we cynical republicans can hope is that surly anti-celebrity Bradley Wiggins can win Sports Personality of the Year.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge try cookies as they visit a night shelter in Cambridge. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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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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