David Cameron on his mosque visit in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The challenge to British Islamists

Too often, David Cameron has failed to engage with all aspects of Britain’s Muslim community so: he has visited a mosque only once in five years.

In the decade since the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, the British government’s response to the threats posed by Islamist extremism has too often been haphazard and disjointed. These failings – as well as what David Cameron called the “failures of integration” in a speech in Birmingham on 20 July – have contributed to many hundreds of Muslim Britons, young and old, travelling to Iraq and Syria to live under the self-declared Islamic State (IS), perhaps the most malignant force in the world today. Something is seriously wrong if British citizens would rather join IS than live in an open, plural society.

In opposition, Mr Cameron gave an important speech to the Community Security Trust in which he first identified the dangers of non-violent extremism. He reiterated this in his speech in Birmingham but went much further. If “non-violent” extremists – preachers, teachers, community leaders – create the moral imperatives for violence, he said, government must engage in the “battle of ideas” informing their world-views. Too many politicians have shied away from doing so, considering it a problem that only Muslims could deal with. There is some truth in this – after all, Muslim liberals and reformers will have to take the lead in confronting extremist interpretations of their faith. Yet the Prime Minister is right to offer them his explicit backing and support.

Because these Islamist extremists are British and their narratives of grievance and struggle are informed by this country’s policies, the Prime Minister is correct to argue that the government cannot be a passive onlooker as British Muslims contest the varying constructions of their faith.

Mr Cameron’s rhetoric about a “five-year plan” has been backed up by what has the makings of a coherent and nuanced strategy, countering “warped” extremist ideology and radicalisation by empowering the government to take ­action against individuals or groups considered to be espousing such views. Accompanying this strident approach will be attempts to address the “drowning out” of moderate voices, aiming to isolate extremists from the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims in Britain. It is a powerful and necessary step forward in the UK’s anti-extremism strategy. Perhaps most significant is the promise to adopt an “inclusive” approach to the problem: working with British Muslims rather than alienating them. “The extremists are the ones who have the money, the leaders, the iconography and the propagandamachines,” Mr Cameron said. “We have to back those who share our values.”

As the Muslim Council of Britain stressed, it is now incumbent on the Prime Minister to engage with “all sections of the community, including mainstream Muslim organisations and those who have differing views”. Too often, Mr Cameron has failed to do so: he has visited a mosque only once in five years in office. Now would be a good time to rectify that lamentable record. He should also pay heed to the review by the civil servant Louise Casey into boosting opportunities and integration for minority groups.

When Mr Cameron refers to Islamic extremism as the “struggle of our generation”, it is hard to accuse him of hyperbole. The urgency is undoubtedly overdue and brings with it the promise of mending the government’s fraught relationship with significant sections of the Muslim community.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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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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