This is a much longer version of a piece published in the Le Monde Diplomatique which can be accessed here.
More than 400 high-rise developments are now in progress or have received planning permission in London (New London Architecture, 2016). Almost none of the dwellings these towers yield will be affordable. Close to zero are what we might loosely term public housing, reserved for those on no or low incomes. In the stories now told of London’s massive inequalities (Cunningham and Savage, 2017) and housing problems (Minton, 2017) the towers in place and those to come signal the city’s social extremes and the inability of state or market to resolve social need. Despite the intention that these high quality pads are for the globe’s elite the feeling on seeing these new spaces is rather of a somewhat disposable environment that fits their need, in many cases, to rest money. The community in mono imagined by ‘starchitects’ and estate agents on billboards and in brochures are sales pitches to a floating class of the rich and investors. Whatever drugs the architects of the gold apartment block at Battersea power station were smoking it seems their inspiration was pound signs rather than the giant floating pig pictured on Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover. As in many other parts of London construction here is undertaken solely in the pursuit of money rather than people (Watt, 2016). Much of the development along the Thames appears to offer a parody of place and a mirage-idea of communal life. These are essentially dead spaces and dwellings, their lifelessness important in maintaining clean conditions to allow the realization of maximum exchange value, rather than being valued for use as places to reside. The question of who benefits from such development is an ongoing irritant to the city’s managers and politicians that will not go away.
London’s position as a shining beacon for the globe’s super wealthy has not been good news for the wider population of the city. When the good times were rolling they were marked by an aggressive expansion of gentrification, private tenant evictions, the demolition of dozens of public estates, welfare reforms and household displacement. Some have suggested that these forms of investment and destruction are related (Atkinson, Parker and Burrows 2017) but, with the advent of Brexit deliberations, the potentially negative role of international investment has been glossed over by the city’s elite who have had to recognise their addiction to international capital. Despite this the rich themselves appear more as a sign of the slow death of the city than one of vitality as in many cities around the world who now appear to be suffering under the vertical weight of the wealthy (Graham, 2017).
One possible ghost guide to the new follies and ruins generated by investors and developers might be Erich Fromm who, in his later life had become exercised by the focus in our culture on things rather people. Having rather being. There remains something powerful in his idea that our desire for lifeless things suggested we inhabit a kind of necrophiliac culture, a society fixed on the denial of death and the pursuit of shiny objects. Can we not read the pursuit of apartments and empty homes as the peak expression of such desires and drives by the wealthy (Sudjic, 2006), the towers themselves as a form of necrotecture? Can we think of London’s inflated skyscape as the result of an urban political economy harnessed to the death-drive of capital and the unchecked global accumulation strategies of the wealthy?
In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) Fromm had identified necrophilia as a form of attraction to anything dead, a mechanical form of interest that evaded notions of the social or human connectivity. This love of dead things appears to offer an apposite framing of the love of dead things expressed by the world’s super wealthy. Properties are snapped-up as signs of personal progress and status while remaining wholly or partially uninhabited. Marketing materials for many of the new developments offer images of empty chrome and velvet interiors looking-out over the city. Prospective buyers are able to project their presence as the city’s triumphant captains without seeing signs of community life or troublesome social difference. The psyche of affluence is thus able to insulate itself from any sense of connection or social reciprocity while inhabiting myths of personal success driven by ambition and hard work. This might not matter if dead things and spaces were not so corrosive to the social life of the city more broadly. Massive injections of international capital have fed the logic of building for the needs of the wealthy and international buyers (Ho and Atkinson, 2017). Such investment also damages the apparent legitimacy and vital role of public housing (Marcuse and Madden, 2016) as it has come to be framed as a form of lavish public expenditure while higher bidders wait in the wings. Here the wider sociality of the city is afflicted by a creeping necrosis as other parts of the urban body are starved of a vital supply of people and social circulation generated by absent owners and their investment vehicles – overseen by a political system that has misunderstood city standing to be indexed by the presence of wealth, rather than its creation and wider distribution (Engelen et al, 2016).
The lifeless interiors of the architecture that has emerged from a confluence of capital investment and status-seeking by the wealthy seems to speak of the real endpoint of urbanism (Minton, 2012) and any ability to enable citizens assurances of livelihood and home by urban political economy (Aalbers and Christophers, 2014). The housing crisis is produced by a system in which money rather than people is the primary index of success. Political and economic forces have combined to produce lifeless spaces that are dynamically linked to global chaos, low intensity warfare and globalized criminality elsewhere (Transparency International, 2017) and upon which London’s economy now depends and of which few questions are asked.
If you want to see these processes of accumulation and emptiness in the flesh it is instructive to wander past One Hyde Park or the many empty mansions lining The Bishops Avenue and others in North London. One of the reasons that so many people are exercised about the cost and lack of housing in the city is that in it they witness their own and other’s competition for these resources juxtaposed with a landscape of empty shells that should be homes. While many and sometimes most blocks are almost never occupied many households on local authority waiting lists are exported outside their borough or to the regions (Greenwood, 2017) and a third of a million households languish on waiting lists for public housing in London alone (DCLG, 2016). While taking a walk along the Thames near Nine Elms one can see many new towers, apparently suspended by an invisible line along the river’s corridor. Rather like dead mackerels these luxury high-rise developments shine but they also stink, the odour generated by corrupt planning agreements and a housing system out of sync with the needs of ordinary folk in the city (Scanlon et al, 2017).
A city for money or its citizens?
The sense of outright winners and vulnerable losers raises big questions about who the city is for (Minton, 2017). If we could buy the argument that the wider economy and population somehow benefit from such investment the new skyscape might have some grain of defensibility. Yet such arguments appear threadbare. Those with economic and political power nevertheless identify an economy of property and finance as the magical machine driving living standards and reputation. London’s new mayor has moved in a slightly different direction, launching an enquiry into the number of homes bought by offshore investors and which appear to be more or less unoccupied (Wallace, Rhodes and Webber, 2017). Some sense of the scale of these problems can be identified with even the discreet presence of the rich leaving traces. One recent study examined utility records to locate homes with abnormally low electricity use which generated the estimate that around 21,000 homes are long-term empty (Transparency International, 2017). In fact around five percent of homes in Central and Western London lie in such empty conditions according the to the government’s statistics agency (Gask and Williams, 2015).
Non-partisan groups have highlighted significant flows of criminal and anonymous purchasing of thousands of homes that appear to be decidedly non-trivial. The head of the National Crime Agency has suggested that criminal money has driven-up property prices and that hundreds of millions of pounds of property purchases are the subject of criminal investigation as suspected proceeds of corruption, yet these figures only represent a fraction of the total amount. Transparency International (2015) has already revealed that around 10% of properties in Kensington and Chelsea were owned through a “secrecy jurisdiction” and tied to around £122bn of offshore money. The question of who cares is left hanging, with many cases not pursued by resource-starved tax agencies.
One of the most glaring injustices is that while essential workers and even those on respectable incomes struggle to access decent housing the city is producing thousands of apartments for people who may never use them. If you countenance that this is the sign of a functioning housing market you might like to reset your market principles – who does it benefit that housing lies unused by its buyers? How broken is a planning system that leaves unchallenged the construction of blocks of hundreds of flats sold north of £600,000 for a studio but in which the idea of a handful of affordable homes is seen as a threat to its market viability? Mounting evidence shows that developers and planning consultants work hard to circumvent their duty to offer either affordable housing or cash contributions to the local authority (here it is worth consulting the work published at http://www.ourcity.london). Criticism of this system has been growing for some years now but the rising intensity of anger is palpable, even if effective resistance remains elusive.
Urban growth and decline
In 1951 the population of Greater London, its 32 constituent boroughs and the square mile of the City, was 8,164,416. Like many other British cities the mid-century census recorded what was, for another 60 years, its peak. It now seems difficult to remember that Britain’s inner cities were places of economic stagnation, social decline and out-migration. The term inner city was used to invoke a social imaginary marked by these features as much as any sense of real geographical place. By 1981 the nascent Thatcher government occupied a London whose population had fallen to 6,608,513. The most recent survey of the city’s population now shows an all-time high of 8,173,900. This apparent demographic health belies massive shifts in the structure of the city’s economy and new rounds of casualties in housing markets. Alongside changes in the city economy that saw it move to become a nodal point in the world financial global economy massive changes have reworked many neighbourhoods thought untouchable as gentrification opportunities decades before (Jackson and Benson, 2014).
Today the city again faces an uncertain future. Economic pre-eminence in a global system of urban command centres appears to be giving way to anxieties about London’s future and this includes the possibility that financial institutions may start to move away. Trying to keep the goose that lays the golden eggs, even if they did little for the city’s working class, is even more emphatically the name of the game under the Brexit threat. Such worries appear only to add vigour to the grab for land and sky by capital with projections for the numbers of the super-rich in the city set to grow significantly in coming years (Knight Frank, 2017). Meanwhile those criticising construction aimed solely at international investors are cast as out of touch with the realities of seeking custom in a global market. Yet even the trade in premium real estate sales appears fragile in the context of Brexit and the possibility that key financial institutions may be lured away to competitor cities as the crisis talks continue with sales in the top ‘prime’ markets showing dramatic reductions in volume. Despite this questions of social inequality and exclusion have been pushed to the side by a government scrambling to attract buyers and institutions to keep the national books balanced.
London’s patrician class appear to have recognised which side their bread is buttered on some time ago. What was once our establishment might now be better characterised as ushers to capital and the discrete vendors of prized assets and products (Shaxson, 2011). The international rich come for the city’s financial services, generate construction and jobs for decorators and nannies and are prepared to pay fees and taxes on property sales (or work hard to avoid them). Property professionals and financial wizards continue to offer portentous and authoritative assessments of how tariffs, taxes or regulatory moves would kill flows of capital investment. This may be true now but it wasn’t even just two years ago when selling £10m flats before they were built was possible. What is true now is that the systemic threats being revealed today will injure the city’s poor and working-classes much more deeply than it will the wealthy. If in the last decade we had hung on to the coat tails or Masseratti exhaust pipes of the super-rich our grip must tighten if we are to catch any crumbs that might be dropped our way in the future (Koh, Wissink and Forrest, 2016).
The City’s own strength is simultaneously the wider city’s Achilles heel. While the economic role of the City is well understood, its asymmetrical dominance in the structure of the urban economy presents risks (Christensen, Shaxson and Wigan, 2016). For the price of a cup of coffee any economic geographer will tell you that a key danger for any single-industry town is that it is more likely to die or be filleted as changing fortunes become apparent over time due to competition from rivals. Where in the past such change wrought devastation on the likes of Glasgow, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and the rest of a long list, it may yet be that London’s fate is to see many of its core services lost to the Dublins, Paris’ or Frankfurts of this world. Analysts are now pondering the question of how many individual bankers or institutions will leave after an exit from the EU. The likely answers appear to be thousands and, well who knows! Even if banks are not as mobile as the currencies and services they deal in an orderly or partial evacuation over years remains a real possibility.
When the good times rolled prior to the Brexit vote (please bear with me here if you were on a waiting list, crammed two to a room or saving for that elusive deposit to get on the housing ladder) we were told not to touch the market, maintain a low tax environment to enable overseas monies to flow and benefit the wider city. With the risks to the city’s economy from Brexit this logic asserts itself more emphatically, leaving a city with an apparently very large neon ‘for sale’ sign above it. Many of its most prized assets are now the property of foreign wealth funds or individuals (Harrods, The Shard, Harvey Nicholls). Much of the commercial property on the street on which the Sloane Ranger of the 1980s was born is now owned by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. These changes are emblematic of concurrent shifts in class and taste and reflect a move from gentry and landed wealth (Webber and Burrows, 2016) to the arrival of an expanding cadre of those who have benefited immeasurably from globalization, the lucky control of state assets or associations with international criminal activity. Their brashness and raw money power is perhaps only matched by the vitriol cast on them by the last vestiges of wealthy long-term residents in the city’s inner West who appear not to realise that it is others in their class that put up the ‘for sale’ sign in the first place.
It’s the money stupid…
The most obvious answer to any question we might wish to ask about London’s problems today is money. Money is why our political interests turn a blind eye to offshore and criminal purchasing of real estate, no matter how shady the source. Money is the reason that public housing is being demolished in the name of ‘affordable’ housing. Money is why gentrification is a good thing and poor residents might be better placed elsewhere. Money lies at the heart of keeping taxes low and regulations slack. Money is the reason for the new dead spaces along much of the Thames and beyond. The city shaped by this dominating rationality is like a negative doughnut, wealth and high-rise housing in its core that falls away to suburbs increasingly marked by slow physical decay and an enlarged presence of the city’s poor. Our claim to world standing is to play host to the most ultra-high net-worth individuals of any city globally – 4,750 living within its boundaries and around 80 billionaires (Knight Frank, 2017). Such boasts appear poor slogans for a city that has become a sorting machine for opportunity and fortune – the rich in one door, the poor out of others, necessary casualties of a city dominated by a prime real estate and finance economy.
London’s dead homes are the offspring of demands for the unfettering of markets and ambitious urban remaking. Yet we also need to recognise that for many others the city’s new architecture indicates that we are moving in the right direction. Here the notorious assessment of the new director of Zaha Hadid architects, Patrick Schumacher, was a frank disclosure of the values circulating among some practices – pave over Hyde Park, remove public housing, let the market really rip and dictate who gets to live here. Surely, he suggested, everyone knows we benefit from dinner parties in the homes of the rich? Misjudging the views of the wider audience of these comments (the new mayor, for one, slammed his ideas) such ideas remain dominant among those whose bread is buttered by capital. Meanwhile protecting municipal housing, alleviating real poverty in a rich city, wider regional inequalities or caring for the elderly and disabled are seen as unfortunate by-products of a system damaged by the legacy of a previous government. The prospects for challenging the overall direction of the city and its politics appear miserable (Atkinson et al 2017).
Twenty years ago, before Meet the Russians Channel 4’s show, Big Train, offered a skit in which the jewel of London’s hotel establishment was sold to a wealthy oligarch. There would be few changes, the new owner briefed staff, but a small request – to change the name from the Ritz to the Titz. Such possibilities have become thinkable. The culture-shock and clash of capital against everyday life are features of a city that is barely working for its working population. Gross excess is now a mainstay of many reality TV programs on the super-rich, their tastes and demands gawped at by millions where the unnecessary is the very mark of success. More, bigger, shinier, emptier.
The ranks of towers on the banks of the Thames are born of a deep-seated market subjectivity which, in turn, moulds the thinking of those seeking to capture the desires of the hypermobile wealthy. If we build them, they might come, if we don’t, we are screwed. We can speculate on what will happen to a city that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The good times of high rollers and flagship buildings did little for the mere mortals of the city, yet the future holds the prospect that anxiety and economic insecurity will mean that the rich are welcomed with even more firmly open arms.
Authors note: This piece is dedicated to those that died in the Grenfell Tower disaster, a 24-storey public housing tower block in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
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 Even the London mayor’s response to the reports commissioned by him to look into overseas investment recognised “international investment plays a vital role in providing developers with the certainty and finance they need to increase the supply of homes and infrastructure for Londoners” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/13/foreign-investors-snapping-up-london-homes-suitable-for-first-time-buyers