A displaced Iraqi Yazidi family takes refuge under a bridge, 17 August. Photo: Getty
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Our part in the Iraq crisis, a forgotten Labour man and grouse-moor people power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

Faced with the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (formerly known as Isis), compassion demands once more that something be done. But no matter how compelling the humanitarian case for military intervention may be, we should pause. Over the past century, every western act in the Middle East – every national boundary drawn, every move to protect our “vital interests”, every subsidy to supposedly friendly regimes or rebel groups, every bomb dropped, every soldier’s boot on the ground, every rocket, tank or gun supplied – has made things worse, culminating in the horrors we now witness.

Minorities that lived peacefully in the region for centuries are being driven from their homes, starved to death and slaughtered, at least partly as a result of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. Even the Blairite David Miliband acknowledges, in his strangulated way, that the invasion “is a significant factor in understanding the current situation”.

Middle Eastern violence has reached such ghastly extremes that, we now think, we can’t make things worse. But we can, always.

The other Snowden files

To Yorkshire, where my wife and I enjoy the hospitality of my old friend and former NS columnist Paul Routledge (now of the Daily Mirror) and his wife. We travel to Ickornshaw Moor, where the memorial cairn to Philip Snowden, Labour’s first (and second) chancellor, towers above the grazing sheep close to Cowling, the wool-weaving village where he was born in 1864. It states that Snowden “lived his whole life in the service of the common people”.

In this lonely and (I should think) rarely visited spot, where the wind chills even on a warm summer’s day, I find this memorial strangely moving. With Ramsay MacDonald, Snowden “betrayed” Labour in 1931 by forming an alliance with the Tories to impose benefit cuts. Though he later resigned from the national government over the introduction of import tariffs, he was widely reviled in Labour circles and is now almost forgotten. But not here in Yorkshire: new signs were recently placed on the road at the foot of Ickornshaw Moor directing visitors to his memorial. He may have made mistakes in the final years of his life but at least he didn’t profit significantly from office, leaving a mere £3,366 on his death in 1937. Now that Labour has suffered other and arguably greater betrayals, it may be time to rehabilitate Snowden.

An age-old grouse

Only in the NS do diarists visit moors to stare at cairns. In other magazines, they go north on or after the “Glorious Twelfth” to shoot birds. In that respect, Ickornshaw Moor is unusual because rights to shoot are held not by rich individuals but in common by local villagers. That is still, just about, the case. In 1892, the villagers managed to see off two landowners who claimed the rights by congregating on the moor en masse on 12 August, the first day of the grouse shooting season. Disputes over ownership and access rights reached the courts on several occasions, most recently in the 1980s.

This small example of “people power” is not well known and the rising that began in 1536 in St James’s Church, Louth, which we visit a few days later, is only slightly more familiar. Known as “the Lincolnshire Rising”, for which the vicar was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, it was against Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Within a few days, 22,000 protesters had occupied Lincoln Cathedral. Though short-lived, the rising inspired the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace. England has many such examples of resistance to overmighty authority. When we seem powerless to resist the biggest attack in more than 80 years on ordinary people’s living standards, we should study and admire them.

Everyone’s a winner

At least we can applaud one brave contemporary struggle. Around 50 workers for Care UK in Doncaster, which runs recently privatised local services for disabled people, have been on strike for a total of over five weeks since February, protesting mainly against wage cuts. I met several of them at Doncaster Racecourse, where their union was sponsoring events such as the “Unison Defending Public Services Conditions Stakes”, which makes a welcome change from the “Queen Elizabeth II Stakes”, and so on.

As she usually does on our rare visits to the races, my wife picked several winners at longish odds just by assessing the horses as they paraded. (It’s all to do with bottoms, she says.) We were too mindful of our Nonconformist ancestors to wager more than small amounts but we made a tidy sum, which I slipped into the Care UK workers’ buckets. It will, I hope, provide modest support to their splendid campaign. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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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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