The case of Paris Brown shows the need for real youth representation

Rather than hand-picked individuals like Brown, we need elected youth panels with genuine legitimacy.

It’s been a tough week for Paris Brown. Britain’s first "youth police and crime commissioner" is hardly the first to be on the receiving end of a Mail on Sunday hatchet job. But at 17, she’s among the youngest.

The "foul mouthed teen crime tsar", so called by the same paper, found square miles of newsprint devoted to her foolish tweets, just days after her appointment was announced. Soon after it emerged that her own Kent police would be investigating her offensive comments, she resigned.
 
What lessons can be learned from this sorry saga? Those cynics who thought young people can’t make a difference might have noticed that this teenager has brought the Mail out in condemnation of racism and homophobia. Brown herself should rightfully have learned that prejudice and community cohesion are incompatible. And teens across the country might learn to think again before broadcasting their innermost urges to make hash brownies, as Dorian Lynskey discussed on these pages on Monday.
 
Yet there’s one lesson we’ll no doubt hear even more about: the folly of letting young people near responsibility. At the Telegraph, Jake Wallis Simons says the saga gives us "a valuable insight into just how stupid it is to let teenagers anywhere near heavy machinery, the wine cellar, or a county police force." Should her role have been offered to adults instead? Brown’s appointment might have seemed unusual, but "youth councils" and national and devolved "youth parliaments" have sprung up over the last decade, shadowing the work of various branches of government.
 
Who better to advise on their concerns than young people themselves? Or so the logic goes. The logic that will now be derided by the commentariat, with the Brown case held up as evidence that teenagers couldn’t keep The Great British Bake Off on the right side of the law, let alone advise the police.
Yet if politicians such as Kent police commissioner Ann Barnes see their visions of intergenerational harmony implode, they only have themselves to blame. Giving £15,000 and a chauffer to one carefully-selected sixth-former might grab headlines, but it is unlikely to reduce discontent at a time of sky-high unemployment. Just as they distracted Brown and her fellow applicants, these boons allowed the newspapers to distract from the inconvenient truth that Brown’s role was purely consultative, and carried no powers of its own.
 
A properly-constituted – or even elected – panel of young people could have a far greater claim to representation and legitimacy than a hand-picked individual. But just as this government has decided that public recognition (although you wouldn’t think it looking at voter turnout in police commissioner elections) is more important than effective policing, so politicians of all ilks have determined that gimmicks outweigh genuine commitment to youth representation. Just look at how many local authorities boast a solitary "young mayor".

What they don’t reckon on, somewhat irresponsibly, is that the culture that affords powered individuals more media coverage than collective bodies can also subject vulnerable young people to a thorough trashing.

If anything can ram the fallacy of tokenism down the throats of its propagators, perhaps this will. I’m still sceptical. Some years ago, while still at school, I was elected to the London borough of Camden’s first youth council. After some angling from members, it seemed the authority were breaking the mould and taking devolution seriously: we were handed control of a six-figure budget.

But when we proposed spending it on capital projects to fill gaps in schools provision, such as replenishing dilapidated school libraries, a parade of self-described "youth participation co-ordinators" came before a meeting to say it was a "waste of money". It later emerged they had thought we would spend the money on ceremonial chains and "wristbands".

At the time, Guardian columnist Marcel Berlins cited the Camden story as evidence that young people "cannot make the kind of informed decisions that grown-ups can". But if it tells us anything, it is that when given the time of day and not just lip-service, our youth can come up with inspiring ideas for public services.

The youth council won control over the budget after threats of resignation and local media pressure. But the scare of young people challenging their adult counterparts was enough to ensure Camden council reverted to tokenism next time round, replacing the 36-strong council with just two individuals.

Paris Brown was not the only victim of the media storm: countless others will think twice before putting themselves up for public service. But far from being a demonstration that politics has been caught in a thoughtless "cult of youth", this episode brings to light just another case of young people being fobbed off with tokenism.

Why not forget the salary and the car and let the young people of Kent decide how to spend the money? But of course, that would run the risk of the kids getting uppity.

Paris Brown resigned as Kent's youth and police crime commissioner after her offensive Tweets were unearthed.

 Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.

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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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