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<nettime> Rowland Atkinson: London, whose city? (LMD)
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 2 Jul 2017 08:25:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Rowland Atkinson: London, whose city? (LMD)

original to: https://mondediplo.com/2017/07/06london#nh6

London, whose city?

Architectural follies, and their ruins, have consequences

The fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower and killed so many who lived
there made clear what many have felt for years: London has become a
city for capital not people. It builds for financial transactions, not
for homes.

by Rowland Atkinson
Le Monde diplomatique, July 2017.

Government ministers seen as responsible for unceasing cuts to public
services gave uncomfortable street interviews after a massive fire
rapidly engulfed Grenfell Tower, a public housing block in one of
London’s most affluent districts. The disaster made clear the
terrible results of ideological commitments to cut corners and costs
in building safety regulations, including the installation of what may
have been fire-conducting cladding. Besides the anger and trauma at
the loss of life (some 80 dead), people are questioning the political
and economic choices that forced low-cost safety choices. There is a
strong sense that poor people matter less in a city run for the rich.

Cutting funds to local authorities and public services, and red
tape around health and safety regulations, combined with deep
social inequalities to produce a catastrophe with major political
repercussions. The tower was in the Royal Borough of Kensington and
Chelsea, a parliamentary constituency that changed in the general
election, by just 20 votes, from Conservative to Labour for the first
time, mostly due to concerns over housing. The borough ran budget
surpluses and offered council tax rebates, while choosing to do public
housing maintenance and safety on the cheap. London’s inequalities
are most evident in the social geography of its inner western zones,
where public estates offer vital affordable housing to those on no and
low incomes among multi-million pound homes whose prices are inflated
by offshore investment capital and wealthy buyers.

The slow-motion social disaster of austerity created a burnt-out
landmark as a visible symbol of the callous political choices of the
past decade. People sensed that the poor mattered less and got a raw
deal in social and physical protection; some began to feel that the
disaster might even be part of a plan to rid the area of unsightly
low-income housing and poor people. The disaster seemed the defining
moment of a precarious government struggling to build an alliance to
govern, as promises to posture aggressively at Brexit negotiations
were being broken.

The mood of London and its populace is changing. There is a sense
of possibility that may generate more emphatic changes at future
elections, with a now engaged youth vote and new respect for
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. People are asking who London is for, and
the answer isn’t capital. The Grenfell disaster has led to calls to
invest in and reconstruct high-quality and affordable housing, and to
recognise that declining public investment and the callous treatment
of the urban poor are the problem, not public housing. Massive

Most of London’s current and future high-rises aren’t public
housing (1). More than 400 high-rise developments are now in progress
or have received planning permission. Almost none of their homes will
be affordable, and very few are public housing. In the stories now
told of London’s massive inequalities and housing problems, the
private towers signal the city’s social extremes and the inability
of state or market to resolve social needs. These pads are intended
for the global elite and look like a disposable environment that fits
the need, in many cases, to rest money. The ‘community’ imagined
by starchitects and estate agents on billboards and in brochures is a
sales pitch to a floating class of the rich and investors. Whatever
drugs the architects of the gold apartment block at Battersea Power
Station were on, their inspiration was a pound sign, not the floating
pig on Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover. Much of the development
along the Thames is a parody of place and a mirage of communal life.
These are dead spaces and dwellings, their lifelessness important for
the realisation of maximum exchange value, rather than being valued
for their residential use. The question of who benefits from such
development is an ongoing irritant to managers and politicians.

London’s position as a beacon for the global super-rich has not been
good news for its wider population. When the good times rolled, they
were marked by an aggressive expansion of gentrification, private
tenant evictions, the demolition of dozens of public estates, welfare
reforms and household displacement. The investment and destruction may
be related; with Brexit deliberations, the potentially negative role
of international investment has been glossed over by London’s elite.

Social philosopher Erich Fromm might be a ghost guide to the new
follies and ruins created by investors and developers; in later
life he was exercised by our culture’s focus on things rather
than people, on having rather than being. He thought our desire
for lifeless things suggested a necrophiliac culture, fixated on
the denial of death and pursuit of shiny objects. Is London’s
inflated skyscape the result of an urban political economy harnessed
to the death drive of capital, and the unchecked global accumulation
strategies of the wealthy?

Empty interiors

In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), Fromm identified
necrophilia as an attraction to anything dead, a mechanical interest
that evades social or human connectivity. This seems an apposite
framing of the love for dead things of the world’s super-rich.
Properties are snapped-up as signs of personal progress and status
while remaining wholly or partially uninhabited. Marketing materials
for many developments show empty interiors looking out over the city.
Prospective buyers are able to project their presence as the city’s
triumphant captains without having to witness community life or
troublesome social difference.

This might not matter if these lifeless spaces were not so corrosive
to the social life of the city. Massive injections of international
capital have encouraged the logic of building for the needs of
the wealthy and international buyers. Such investment damages the
legitimacy and vital role of public housing, which is framed as lavish
public expenditure while higher bidders wait in the wings. The wider
sociality of the city withers as parts of the urban body are starved
of a vital supply of people and social circulation by absent owners
and their investment vehicles. All this is overseen by a political
system that believed a city’s standing was to be indexed by the
presence of wealth, rather than its creation and wider distribution.

If you want to see this process of accumulation and emptiness, wander
past One Hyde Park or the many empty mansions lining The Bishops
Avenue north of Hampstead Heath. People are exercised about the cost
and lack of housing in London because they witness competition for
these resources juxtaposed with a landscape of empty shells that
should be homes. A surprising percentage of private housing is rarely
or never occupied, while many households on local authority waiting
lists are exported outside their borough or outside the city; and
a third of a million households remain on waiting lists for public
housing in London. Walking along the Thames’s south side near Nine
Elms, you can see many new towers, apparently suspended along the
river’s corridor. Like dead mackerel, these developments shine, but
also stink of corrupt planning agreements and a housing system out of
sync with the needs of ordinary folk.

The sense that there are outright winners and vulnerable losers raises
big questions. If we bought the argument that the wider economy and
population benefit from such investment, the new skyscape might be
defended. Yet such arguments are threadbare. Those with economic
and political power identify property and finance as the machine
driving living standards and reputation. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan,
has moved in a slightly different direction, launching an enquiry
into the number of unoccupied homes bought by offshore investors. A
recent study examined utility records to locate homes with abnormally
low electricity use, concluding that around 21,000 homes are empty
long-term. Around 5% of homes in central and western London lie empty
according to the government’s statistics agency (2). ‘Secrecy

Non-partisan groups have also highlighted the criminal and anonymous
purchase of thousands of homes. The head of the National Crime Agency
has suggested that criminal money has driven up London property
prices, and hundreds of millions of pounds of purchases are under
criminal investigation as suspected proceeds of corruption, yet these
figures only represent a fraction of the total (3). Transparency
International has revealed that around 10% of properties in Kensington
and Chelsea, the borough in which the Grenfell tragedy occurred,
are owned through a ‘secrecy jurisdiction’, tied to £122bn of
offshore money. Many cases are not pursued by resource-starved tax

One of the worst injustices is that while essential workers and even
those on respectable incomes struggle to access decent housing, London
is building thousands of apartments for people who may never use
them. How broken is a planning system that does not challenge the
construction of blocks of hundreds of flats in which a studio costs
over £600,000, while including a few affordable homes is said to
threaten market viability? Evidence shows that developers and planning
consultants work hard to circumvent their duty to offer affordable
housing or cash contributions to the local authority. Criticism has
been growing for years, but now there is intense and rising anger,
even if effective resistance remains elusive.

In 1951 the population of Greater London — its 32 constituent
boroughs and the square mile of the City — was 8,164,416, making
it a peak year for London (and many British cities). But by 1981
and the nascent Thatcher government, the population had fallen to
6,608,513 due to a changing economy and outward migration from most of
Britain’s major cities to suburban areas. It is now hard to remember
the time when Britain’s inner cities were places of economic
stagnation, social decline and out-migration, and ‘inner city’
evoked a social imaginary marked by these features as much as any
geographical place.

The most recent census, of 2011, shows London’s population at an
all-time high of 8,173,900. Yet this apparent demographic health
belies massive shifts in the structure of London’s economy and new
casualties in housing markets. With changes in London’s economy
as it moved towards becoming a node in the world financial economy
came changes to many neighbourhoods previously thought untouchable by

Today London again faces an uncertain future. Economic pre-eminence in
a global system of urban command centres is giving way to anxieties
about the city’s future, including the possibility that financial
institutions may move away. Trying to keep the goose that lays the
golden eggs, even if it does little for London’s working class, is
ever more the name of the game under Brexit.

Such worries add vigour to capital’s grab for land and sky, with
projections for the numbers of the super-rich in London set to
grow significantly. Those criticising construction aimed solely at
international investors are called out of touch with the realities of
selling in a global market (4). Yet even the trade in premium real
estate appears fragile in the context of Brexit and the possibility
that key financial institutions may be lured to competitor cities
as crisis talks continue, with sales at the top of the market
dramatically reducing in volume. Despite this, concerns about social
inequality and exclusion have been pushed aside by a government that
is scrambling to attract buyers and institutions to keep the national
books balanced.

London’s patrician class recognised where the money is some time
ago. What was once the establishment might now be better called
ushers to capital and vendors of prized assets and products. The
international rich come for 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 offer portentous assessments of
how tariffs, taxes or regulatory moves would kill the flow of capital
investment. This may be true now but it wasn’t just two years ago
when selling £10m flats before they were built was possible. The
systemic threats being revealed today will injure London’s poor
and working classes even more given the inability of governments to
extract more from the presence of the wealthy when times were good.
If in the last decade we hung on to the Maserati exhaust pipes of the
super-rich, our grip must tighten in the future. There will be less
going spare. London’s Achilles heel

The City’s strength is London’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. Any economic geographer
will tell you that a key danger for any single-industry town is that
it is more likely to die as its fortunes change because of competition
from rivals. Where such change once devastated Glasgow, Sheffield,
Birmingham and many others, London’s fate may be to lose core
services to Dublin, Paris or Frankfurt. Analysts are now pondering
how many bankers or institutions will leave after Brexit. The likely
answer is thousands. 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.

In the good times before the Brexit vote (bear with me if you were on
a waiting list, crammed two to a rented room or saving for a deposit
to get on the housing ladder), we were told not to touch the market,
in order to maintain a low-tax environment to enable overseas monies
to benefit London. With the risks to London’s economy from Brexit,
this is more emphatic, and London now has a large neon ‘for sale’
sign. Many prized assets are the property of foreign wealth funds
or individuals (Harrods, The Shard, Harvey Nichols). Much of the
commercial property on Sloane Street is owned by the Qatari sovereign
wealth fund. These changes symbolise shifts in class and taste and
reflect a move from gentry and landed wealth to an expanding cadre
of those who have benefited from globalisation, the lucky control of
state assets, or associations with international criminal activity.
Their brashness and raw money power is only matched by the hatred
felt by the last wealthy long-term residents of inner west London who
didn’t realise that others in their class put up the first ‘for
sale’ signs. It’s the money, stupid

The most obvious answer to any question about London’s problems
is money. Money is why our political interests turn a blind eye
to offshore and criminal purchasing of real estate, no matter how
shady its 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
sent elsewhere. Money lies at the heart of keeping taxes low and
regulations slack. Money is the reason for the dead spaces along the
Thames and beyond. The London shaped by this dominating rationale is
a negative doughnut with wealth and high-rise housing its centre,
falling away to suburbs marked by slow physical decay and the exported
city poor. London’s claim to world standing is playing host to the
most ultra-high net-worth individuals of any city globally — 4,750
— of whom 80 are billionaires (5). Such boasts are poor slogans for
a city that has become a sorting machine for opportunity and fortune:
the rich come in one door, the poor go out the other, necessary
casualties of a city dominated by a prime real estate and finance

London’s dead homes result from demands for unfettered markets
and ambitious urban remaking. Yet we need to recognise that for
many others, London’s new architecture indicates a move in the
right direction. The new director of Zaha Hadid architects, Patrick
Schumacher, frankly disclosed values in some practices when he
suggested paving over Hyde Park, removing public housing and letting
the market dictate who lives where (6). He misjudged the views of the
wider audience (London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, slammed the suggestions)
but such ideas remain dominant among those whose bread is buttered by
capital. Meanwhile, protecting municipal housing, alleviating real
poverty in a rich city and wider regional inequalities, or caring for
the elderly and disabled are seen as unfortunate problems for which
there is no money due to the profligacy of a previous government. The
prospects for challenging the overall direction of London and its
politics could look dismal.

Twenty years ago, there was a television sketch in which the Ritz,
one of the grandest of London’s hotels, was sold to an oligarch. He
told the staff there would be few changes, but he had a small request:
to change the name to the Titz (7). Such possibilities have become
thinkable. The culture shock and clash of capital with everyday life
are features of a city barely serving its working population. Gross
excess is now a mainstay of reality TV about the super-rich, their
tastes and demands gawped at by millions, with the unnecessary as the
mark of success. More, bigger, shinier, emptier.


Rowland Atkinson is chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of 
Sheffield and the author (with Sarah Blandy) of Domestic Fortress: Fear 
and the New Home Front (Manchester University Press, 2016) and co-editor 
of Building Better Societies: Promoting Social Justice in a World 
Falling Apart (Policy Press, 2017).


(1) Rowland Atkinson, ‘Cities for the rich’, Le Monde diplomatique, 
English edition, December 2010.

(2) Karen Gask and Susan Williams, ‘Analysing low electricity 
consumption using DECC data’, Office for National Statistics methodology 
working paper series, no 6, 2015 (Download PDF file).

(3) Ben Moshinsky, Business Insider UK, 6 April 2017.

(4) Even Khan’s response to the reports commissioned by him to look into 
overseas investment recognised that ‘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’, 

(5) Knight Frank, ‘The Wealth Report: the global perspective on prime 
property and investment’, London, 2017.

(6) Oliver Wainwright, ‘Zaha Hadid’s successor: scrap art schools, 
privatise cities and bin social housing’, The Guardian, London, 24 
November 2016.

(7) BBC Two, ‘The Titz’, Big Train, 14 May 2010.


It is worthwhile to check out the pronouncements of Patrick Schumacher 
(note 6) in their entirety:

(includes full speech on video - 1h11’ )

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