Between Victoria and Vauxhall

John Lanchester

The parliamentary constituency of Vauxhall is an odd shape, and when you look at the map, it doesn’t seem surprising that it was recommended for abolition by the two most recent Boundary Commission reviews. At the southern end it reaches halfway across Clapham Common, and encompasses the western side of Brixton. Its northernmost point is at the National Theatre, by Waterloo Bridge, an area which, like Clapham and Brixton, nobody thinks of as having anything to do with Vauxhall. The name comes from the eponymous train station, once such a marvel that it gave the Russian language its word for train station – vokzal.

In front of the train station is a busy bus depot with a strange stepped metallic roof, resembling an urban ski jump whose builder suddenly lost his nerve. Opposite the transport hub is Vauxhall Bridge, sandwiched between two architectural monstrosities. On our right, Terry Farrell’s multi-coloured postmodern ziggurat houses the headquarters of MI6, and makes what I’ve always assumed is a sly joke, or maybe a dark joke, about the status of the secret services in British life. It is an extraordinarily high-profile building for an agency whose official existence wasn’t even acknowledged until 1994. It has prominent windows and an open, accessible appearance, until you look a second time and notice that you can’t see inside the building: you can’t see any human activity. The roof bristles with antennae. It’s huge but secret, open but closed, they can see us but we can’t see them. ¡Olé!

On our left is St George Wharf, a sprawling, messy, incoherent sort-of-postmodern residential complex that the readers of Architects’ Journal twice voted Worst Building in the World. Next to it is a building which to my eye looks even worse, The Tower, 1 St George Wharf. This is fifty storeys high, 594 feet, and was not long ago the tallest residential building in Europe. The tower is largely unoccupied, as anyone who has driven past it at night can testify. The flats are mainly (two-thirds, according to a Guardian investigation) owned by foreigners who choose not to live there – part bolthole for when it kicks off at home, part speculative investment, part, to quote Boris Johnson, ‘safety deposit boxes in the sky’. Meaning: a device for getting capital out of your home country, where it might be stolen or expropriated, to the UK, where the only true and universal object of worship is property rights. The owners include ‘a close ally of Vladimir Putin, the former chairman of a defunct Nigerian bank and a Kyrgyz vodka tycoon’ – you know, those guys.

St George Tower had its 15 minutes of fame in 2013 when a helicopter, on the way to pick up the tycoon Richard Caring, hit it in fog and crashed, killing the pilot and a pedestrian on his way to work. It is a building so ugly and so out of place – so disproportionate, so brutally disrespectful of its environment and context – that you will, if you pass it regularly, be certain to wonder how on earth the relevant bodies allowed it to be built. The answer is that they didn’t. The building was rejected by the planning inspector, but the rejection was overruled by John Prescott, then ‘first secretary of state’, on the basis that it was part of an existing ‘cluster’ of tall buildings. That wasn’t true, but the relevant authorities set about making it true in retrospect, by giving planning permission to a number of very tall buildings in the immediate area.

Around the same time, the decades-long attempt to develop Battersea Power Station finally reached the stage of building. (I say ‘decades-long’: Mrs Thatcher gave her imprimatur to a plan to turn the site into a theme park. That was in 1988. The Times report is still there on her foundation’s website: ‘When completed in 1990, it will include two hundred rides, shows and exhibitions, London’s biggest ice rink, restaurants, shops and conference facilities.’) Then it was announced that the US Embassy was moving to a site in between the power station and Vauxhall, in Nine Elms, one of those London place-names for somewhere that’s more an interstice between other places than a place in itself. The building immediately across the road from the tower is going to be a luxury hotel-plus-flats owned by the Chinese company Dalian Wanda, whose founder, Wang Jianlin, is the richest man in China, indeed in the whole of Asia. One Nine Elms is their first property in Europe. The building will feature two huge towers, and will loom over the other tall buildings in its penumbra. This new area is, in planner-speak, known as VNEB, for Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea. Two new Northern Line stations are planned, the first since 1926. Twenty thousand new homes will be built. All in all, VNEB is one of the biggest urban developments in Europe.[1]

A person who didn’t know modern Britain well might guess that the body in charge of this hugely ambitious project would be one with formidable powers of oversight and planning, combined with decades of expertise. A person who knew modern Britain better would be more likely to guess the truth, which is that there is no such body. No one is in charge of VNEB. There is no plan. The developments are the result of developers’ proposals, as well as occasional blurting interventions on the part of central government, under the supervision of local councils, in this case Wandsworth and Lambeth. Mayoral action and inaction play a role too. Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were both pro-skyscraper; Johnson came up with a great phrase about not wanting to create ‘Dubai-on-Thames’, and then did everything in his power to do exactly that. In 2007, the mayor acquired the power to override local councils on ‘strategic’ questions of building, though this power doesn’t seem yet to have included restricting tall buildings, as opposed to allowing them. From this mismatch arises the marvel that will be VNEB, a chaotic patchwork of architectural ambition, developers’ greed and mostly well-meaning but always overmatched local councils. The new ‘homes’ are being targeted mainly at overseas investors. When the first properties in Battersea Power Station went on sale Businessweek ran a story about it that you didn’t need to read. All you had to do was look at the byline: Kuala Lumpur. Typical of the flats that have gone on sale so far is a two-bedroom apartment for £1.5 million. No Londoner – no Brit – is going to spend that kind of money to live in a two-bedroom flat in Vauxhall. The target market is glaringly, self-evidently non-local.

This is happening in a city where, by universal consent, one of the biggest problems is the lack of affordable housing. For many Londoners, younger people especially, the cost of housing is their first concern; living in what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calls ‘housing-cost-induced poverty’ is central to their experience of life in the capital. This is one reason London is suffering a net loss of people in their thirties – a terrible warning sign for any city, especially one so pleased with itself. There is something here which reaches beyond the standard four-legs-good, two-legs-bad of party allegiance. Look at it from a Vauxhall local’s point of view: 1. housing is in crisis and desperately needs fixing; 2. the single biggest thing to be happening in the local economy in decades is a housing development; and yet 2 has nothing to do with 1, will not alleviate it in any respect, and may even (if it succeeds in flooding the London market with yet more foreign capital) make 1 worse. There is a total disconnect between what a majority of citizens want – I’m guessing, but London is a city where the majority of people are renters rather than owners – and political outcomes. Who should you have voted for, if you didn’t want things to get to this point? Most of it happened under Labour, at all three levels, local, mayoral and governmental. The Tories made it worse. Who should you vote for in Vauxhall at this general election, if you want to stop what’s obviously going to happen: the creation of a huge number of the very last things the city needs, new luxury flats under absentee foreign ownership?

The answer is that it doesn’t much matter, because on this issue you have no agency. I know that this may look like a trick answer, since planning decisions are taken by local not central government (except when the reverse is true, à la Prescott Towers). But our political system is man-made, not the creation of divine decree, and it is the system which is failing in this respect. In the case of housing, the solution to this problem is obvious and has been known for years. It is to build more housing. The Barker review in 2004 came to the conclusion that the UK has an annual shortage of 245,000 new homes. There is a universal consensus about this. Except that there’s no sign anything is actually happening. It is an example of the ideological hegemony Perry Anderson writes about in his new book The H-Word.[2] We have persuaded ourselves into a corner where governments believe they have no tools to address the shortfall in housing construction, especially social and low-cost housing. The best that successive governments have been able to do is to ‘leave it to the market’, even though the market has manifestly failed, and carries on failing, to build enough new homes.

The housing crisis is partly a question of misaligned incentives: big property companies’ main asset is land, and if an inadequate supply of houses is being built, the value of the land goes up, creating a perverse, but highly effective, incentive not to build more housing. As a demonstration of the law of supply and demand, it could not be more perfect: supply is artificially restricted, so demand surges. In plain English, there aren’t enough houses being built, so houses are too expensive for most people. This fact is well understood, but the liberal ideology of market solutions makes it impossible to adopt an alternative. A system which allows total primacy to economics finds it impossible to address this basic economic fact. The charity Shelter defines truly affordable housing as absorbing no more than 35 per cent of income, but the average rental cost is 47 per cent. So the average is already unaffordable. The best that can be done in the current framework is for the public sector in effect to borrow or beg for crumbs off the market’s table in the form of social and affordable housing. The legal definition of the latter is defined not in relation to pay, but as 80 per cent of the current market rate. So even the alternative to the market defers to the market. The market is very good at building luxury flats, and completely useless when it comes to solving this problem. For a good view of the problem, come and have a look at VNEB.

This is the first way in which the constituency of Vauxhall has symbolic force: it typifies the UK’s dysfunctional housing market. There’s another, which has to do with the most basic inequality of all, life expectancy. The UK is home to some fairly well-known examples of glaring health inequality. One of the most shocking was exposed in a report from the World Health Organisation in 2008, which stated that Calton in the East End of Glasgow has a male life expectancy of 54 – nine years less than in India. Another well-known fact is that if you get on the tube at Westminster, life expectancy declines by one year for every two stops as you travel out towards the East End. Less well known is that the most spectacular drop in life expectancy in London happens between Victoria and Vauxhall, two stops on the Victoria line: in that journey of just over a mile, life expectancy declines by nine years. That is an astonishing, shameful statistic for one of the world’s richest cities and it is, again, a subject on which the general election offers no real guidance.

Life expectancy in general is one of the great untold successes of contemporary Britain: it has increased by ten years for men, and eight for women, since 1960. But the rich continue to live longer than the poor, and nobody seems to know how to address that. In addition, one of the secret scandals of modern Britain has been the increase in the death rate. In England and Wales it went up by 5.4 per cent in 2015, an extra 27,000 deaths over the year before: too big a number to be a statistical glitch. The death rate fell from the mid-1970s until the arrival of the coalition, but has been going up since 2011. The fact that the death rate fell under successive Tory and Labour regimes and is only now rising suggests that there is something specific about recent policy which is making the death rate worse. The likeliest culprit is changes to social care, in particular care of the elderly. This is nothing like as big a scandal as it should be. The brute facts of mortality rates and the health gap between the rich and the poor are the preserve of policy wonks, rather than a principal focus of political debate.

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Who should you vote for if you want to change that? Notwithstanding those scandalous data about life expectancy, Labour would be the normal answer. The mortality rate fell by two deaths per thousand during Labour’s tenure in office from 1997 to 2010. The data show correlation rather than cause, but are striking even so. Anyway, for reasons of demographic affiliation more than anything else, Vauxhall has been a rock-solid Labour seat since its creation as a constituency in 1950. The last election offered an exemplary range of candidates: the magnificently named Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, the UK’s only openly HIV-positive candidate, stood for the Lib Dems; Cameroon-born Ace Nnorom, who arrived in the UK in 2001, stood for Ukip (‘You can’t have a country hosting people it can’t take care of … It’s like if you have a party and you know your house can accommodate eighty people and then you put it on Facebook and say it’s a free-for-all. Four thousand people would come and your house would be trashed’); Waleed Ghani stood for the party he and his girlfriend co-founded, or maybe that should be co-re-founded, the Whigs. (They stood in three other seats. Their manifesto was short on specifics, but they are very keen on Progress.) If this makes the 2015 election in Vauxhall seem interesting or unpredictable, it shouldn’t, because Kate Hoey, who has been the MP since a by-election in 1989, won with a majority of 12,000, making it one of the safest Labour seats in the country.

That doesn’t mean she is a sho0-in this time. Vauxhall leads the UK in two statistics. It is the only parliamentary constituency to be entirely in Lambeth, and according to the Office of National Statistics, Lambeth is the gayest place in the United Kingdom, with 5.5 per cent of the population self-identifying as LGB.[3] (It has some of the biggest and, I’m told, liveliest gay clubs in the UK, underneath the railway arches near the eponymous station.) It is also the most pro-Remain place in the UK, with 79 per cent of the population voting to stay in the EU at the June referendum. The only place with a higher Remain vote was Gibraltar. Hoey, though, was a prominent member of the Leave campaign. She was briefly co-chair of the Labour Leave group, and repeatedly made public appearances alongside Nigel Farage. A photo shows the two of them taking part in the idiotic Leave ‘flotilla’ on the Thames not long before the referendum. When Farage came out with the notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster, showing a queue of Syrian refugees on the Croatia-Slovenia border with the clear implication that this was threatening the UK, other prominent Leavers such as Boris Johnson distanced themselves from it: ‘Not our campaign’ and ‘Not my politics’, he said. Ukip’s only MP (who has since quit the party) called it ‘morally wrong’. Vauxhall Labour Party asked Hoey to criticise the poster, but she didn’t, or not quickly or persuasively enough. They subsequently passed a motion censuring her for ‘the seemingly enthusiastic support and comradeship she gave Mr Farage during the campaign’.

Hoey has always been heterodox. There have in the past been rumours that she would join the Tories, and she is an avowed fan of Theresa May: ‘I like her style,’ she said to the BBC. ‘When I watch PMQs now or when I see her, particularly abroad at international events, I have to say I feel quite proud that she is the prime minister of the United Kingdom.’ Hoey is an Ulster Protestant, a farmer’s daughter from Antrim – an unusual background for a Labour MP for an Inner London constituency. She is one of the sitting MPs who voted against the Iraq War; she also voted against foundation hospitals, and the ban on fox-hunting. Five years after the Dunblane massacre, she said she had ‘never accepted the link between legal holding of firearms and illegal weapons’. Gun crime was a live issue in this part of London at that point, but Hoey’s stance on the question doesn’t seem to have done her any harm. Perhaps that’s because she has a good reputation as a local MP, or perhaps it’s just because this is one of those safe seats where, as the saying has it, they weigh the votes rather than count them.

Not this time. Hoey’s cuddling up to Farage in the country’s most pro-Remain constituency has made Vauxhall a target for the Lib Dems. An ambitious target: they came fourth in 2015. Despite that they have begun the campaign energetically. It is the only Labour-held seat to be the focus of action on the part of the Open Britain movement, which seeks to affect the outcome of forty Westminster contests, twenty in which a Brexiter is vulnerable (including Vauxhall) and twenty in which a pro-European is at risk.

The result, from a local point of view, is that there has already been more general election activity than has been visible in years. I’ve lived in Vauxhall for two decades, and this is my sixth general election here. My vote has never been canvassed, not once. It would be an exaggeration to say that I’ve never seen an election leaflet, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than one or two per campaign. This time there were three through the door in the first week, two of them Lib Dem leaflets heavily targeting the Hoey-Farage connection: one of them features pictures of the Brexit Love Boat voyage on the Thames, the other is a disturbing mash-up which shows her face turning into his. The leader of Ukip, Paul Nuttall, has said that they won’t field a candidate in Vauxhall, as a way of helping Hoey. The Lib Dems have said that this makes Hoey the de facto Ukip candidate.

It’s strange, taking part in a genuinely contested election. I’d forgotten what it’s like. In the 1987 general election, though I’d moved to London when I got a job at the LRB, I was still registered to vote in Norwich, where my mother lived. When the election came I took the train home on Wednesday evening, was the first person through the door of the polling station on Thursday morning, and went back to London in time for work. (I’m deeply moved by the thought of how assiduous I was: the paper went to press on Thursday back then, and it must have been press day.) That constituency, Norwich South, was a marginal seat, and one of only a handful in the whole of England to switch from the Tories to Labour at that election. It was a thrilling feeling, the sense of electoral agency: the idea that my vote had really mattered, that it counted for something. Or, even more basic: that my vote had been counted. That the individual unit of that single vote mattered.

The thinned, diminished texture of democratic choice makes that feeling elusive. The charged nature of the Scottish independence referendum and of the Brexit vote were surely connected to a sense that democratic choice had narrowed; that, in most elections, a narrow set of economic ideas would be the dominant facts of life, irrespective of where you put your x. In addition, the nature of the UK electoral system means that for most people, most of the time, their vote doesn’t matter, or not much. The proportion of seats that are likely to change hands is small – 17 per cent in the 2015 general election, whose consequences the UK will be living through for decades to come. Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society points out that some seats have been in the control of the same party since the Victorian era. There are 225 seats that haven’t changed hands since 1950. The referendums gave people a sense that each individual vote had possible consequences; that they had a lever in their hands, and if they pulled a lever, things would happen as a result. Or they could choose not to pull it, and leave things the way they were. It’s not surprising that so many people chose to pull the lever.

What this general election offers in Vauxhall is a choice between voting for the party that helped the Tories introduce the austerity regime which is still blighting lives seven years on, or voting for a candidate who is pro-Brexit, pro-Farage, pro-May, pro-handgun, and backed by Ukip. Isn’t representative democracy great? Perhaps the most emblematic, and the most dispiriting, thing about this local contest is that our votes won’t have much effect on the things that affect us. The outcome of the Vauxhall contest in the general election will have no bearing on any of the outstanding problems facing the area: it will have no effect on the housing crisis, no effect on the hollowing out of Central London by absentee capital, no effect on health inequality. It will, however, give voters who think Brexit is a disaster a chance to let our feelings be known. In that one sense and that sense only, it gives us a lever. I think quite a few of us are going to pull it.

[1] For the backstory on VNEB, see Rowan Moore’s book Slow Burn City (Picador, 560 pp., £10.99, March, 978 1 4472 7020 1), necessary reading for anyone interested in the multiple disasters of contemporary London architecture and planning.

[2] Perry Anderson’s The H-Word will be reviewed in a future issue of the LRB.

[3] No ‘T’ – don’t know why not. ‘In 2015,’ the ONS report says, ‘the Annual Population Survey found 1.7 per cent of adults in the UK identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB). This comprised: 1.1 per cent who identified themselves as gay or lesbian, 0.6 per cent who identified themselves as bisexual. A further 0.4 per cent of the population identified themselves as “Other” which means that they did not consider themselves to fit into the heterosexual or straight, bisexual, gay or lesbian categories. A larger group, 4.1 per cent, refused or didn’t know how to identify themselves.’