September 10, 2004

Just flat wrong

It's one of those things you never notice till somebody points it out to you. After that, you see it everywhere. When you walk round London, and see new developments going up, conversions, apartments, private housing, there are nearly always fourteen of them, like it was a magic number. An exclusive gated development comprising fourteen luxury apartments or words to that effect on the developer's boards surrounding the site. Fourteen. Never fifteen and never more than fifteen.

There's a reason for it, and it's not that the sites they develop are always magically the same size and always magically only big enough for fourteen highly expensive luxury flats. It's that if they go up to fifteen, they can't make them so exclusive any more. Any development of fifteen or more dwellings and they have to make provision for social housing, which means housing somebody like me can afford, which means housing at about a quarter of the price they want to sell it for. Which they do not want to do.

So they stay, rigidly, at fourteen. If the site is a little too small, they cram them in, fourteen studio flats or starter flats or whatever the current euphemism is for a flat the size of a biscuit tin. If the site is a little too small, they thin them out, perhaps daringly making some of the homes two-storied. Or including one or two "retail units" a curious designation, seeing as they're keen on walling off these developments so nobody can actually get into them who doesn't actually live there. Which makes it hard to see who these retail units would serve and what they would sell - there's only so much luxury furniture you can cram into a studio flat, particularly while the fad for minimalism continues. It doesn't really matter, so long as the wall remains unbreached and the rule of fourteen remains unbreached likewise.

Fourteen in Inner London. Twenty-four, if my memory serves me, in the suburbs, but fourteen here in Brixton anyway. I didn't know this when the garage out the back was sold and a development of fourteen flats proposed, or even when the developer met with residents to talk about parking, noise, rights of way, loss of privacy and all the usual issues that arise when somebody proposes to put up a large building overlooking your windows and gardens and blocking the access to the shops you previous enjoyed. I found out just a few days later, and cursed the lost opportunity to have innocently asked the developer why he was building that precise number, and be told some transparent and swiftly-exposed lie by way of an answer.

Still, the knowledge comes in handy. We expected building to start not long after planning permission was granted, which after some argument and some alterations, it was. Not a bit of it. Instead, all was quiet. The garage continued to operate. We continued to walk to the shops and to be able to see beyond the end of the garden without the aid of X-ray vision. Then, a few months later, came another application, for the replacement of the building adjoining the garage with another development of exactly fourteen flats.

The names on the application were different, but the architects were the same and it was clearly part of the same plan. Only staggered, so as to get round the fifteen-homes rule. They might have got away with it, too, because only immediately affected residents are informed of proposed developments, which meant a different set of houses along our street to those which had been informed about the first development. However, Barney, from nine doors down, came round here to tell us about it, was as surprised to hear about the first development as we were surprised to hear about the second one, and after various letters of objection went in, the proposal was withdrawn.

A few days ago, we received a letter announcing an application for planning permission for a third development round the back, on the other side of the garage. Actually it wasn't even for fourteen flats this time, there being a limit to how many quarts even a property developer can pour into a pint pot. It had a different name on the application and this time the name of the architects was different. Which, seeing as the architecture was exactly the same as in the original plan, might have constituted a serious case of plagiarism had it not been obvious to everybody that it was the same people as came up with the other two plans, even if they were trying to disguise their true identity. They'd have been better off with a false nose and a wig.

There is obviously a long-term plan here, or else work on the first set of homes would already have begun. There is a site far too big to restrict to the newly traditional fourteen flats. They therefore want to put it together piecemeal, getting permission for one part, then another, until everything is ready, and will then, hey presto, be built as the single scheme it is. With no place for ordinary and local people. They will be watching from the street.

I take ethical exception, in the first place, to people who go out of their way to build only for the affluent, who sit down and work out exactly how they can best avoid making any provision for people on average incomes, let alone the truly homeless and the poor. Imagine the conversations they must have. Imagine their cynicism. Or, rather more likely and maybe even worse, their complete ignorance that what they're doing is wrong in any way at all.

But if I take ethical exception to that, to exploiting the rules in order to avoid meeting their purpose, I take exception so much more to the use of deception to get round those rules. To deliberately give a false impression in order that somebody can make as much money as possible without having to build as much as a single affordable flat. Who does something like that? Who sits down and plans and works out the details, over months and years, of an operation like that?

The difference between wrong and wickedness lies not always in the act, but sometimes in the circumstances. In these circumstances - a borough strewn with homeless people, a city full of people crying out for homes - this is a deception that goes across that line.


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