London is a receiver and maker of the global finance economy. Its resplendent position is derived from intertwining histories, of the industrial revolution, of fortunes made by old and new elites jostling for place in growing cities. It is a history that takes in empire, its subsequent fall and the eyeing of new opportunities in order to retain an economic, if not military, position on the global stage.
The City of London is critical to this series of changes and, with it, the political system has taken on and helped to broadcast the apparently commonsense view that what is good for this goose is good for the country more broadly. The City is linked to other golden egg-laying entities – numerous tax havens, flows of international capital and so on. Much of this goes on in a high trust, low regulation environment designed to capture this wealth and maintain a powerful homegrown industry on the back of it.
London’s broader “offer”, of fine homes, beautiful urban neighbourhoods often attached to parks, luxury services and shops, welcoming plush hotels and a sense of grandeur and place, cement the economic value of the city as a place to actually live and take a seat alongside the existing elite. As one walks these areas, small glimpses of the incredible niceness of life at the top can be gleaned: a sense of ease, comfort and confidence.
This world has been mothballed by COVID-19, but lockdown for the elite is not the same thing as for everyone else: with ample space and money, they suffer the least.
Wall of money
Walking over Charing Cross bridge one day last year I saw a wall of cranes standing above the Shell Centre. A report I was carrying in my bag told me that more than 90% of these apartments have been sold to anonymous offshore jurisdictions.
Drinking a coffee in the lobby of one of the city’s newest five star hotels, the almost invisible but helpful staffer offered me a copy of The Times. I read about Zamira Hajiyeva, the banker’s wife who spent £16m in Harrods over just a few years, and the long process by which the National Crime Agency came to the conclusion that her fortune was of dubious origin. Yet this case has remained among a mere handful targeted at those laundering illicit proceeds (and whatever happened to a report on Russian money in British politics?).
A property investor told me he knows that there are many thousands of these cases but that they will never see the light of day. Why should politicians and police forces become overly moral about crimes where the only seeming impact is to create a market in overpriced homes? I turned back to my copy of the Guardian and read that 130,000 preventable deaths have been linked to austerity cuts to public services.
Money and investment capital is a force to be reckoned with. It propels the construction of high-rise blocks, carves out the ground beneath palatial homes by the thousands, created new super-prime residential blocks and delivered fortunes to those mediating these changes. JCBs are left entombed inside – perhaps as many as 1,000 over the past two decades – not worth the cost of extracting them.
Yet each day I seem to read reports in the FT under which reader comments are either filled with disgust at who the city has been opened up for or, alternatively, confused at what is the fuss about – if we don’t take their money, some other city surely will? Yet to suggest that the rich are an unadulterated gift to the city would be a mistake.
One way of thinking about what London has become is to describe it as an alpha city. This term denotes a pre-eminent position in the global capitalist world economic and political order. But we can also use it to offer a deeper idea about what the city has become – a grasping political and economic machine whose very culture is infused with the need to maintain its position via an open faucet of global capital because, well, this will float all boats, right?
You will know this argument, but you may not be fully aware of the rotten foundations on which it stands. The city works in concert with its property lobbyists and, via appeals to the need for development and unending rounds of global capital investment, to help ride out the risks of economic downturns and reverses. Come rain or shine, the city works hard to position itself as the preferred destination of many of the international super-rich. Yet, simultaneously, this is a city where an estimated 200,000 have lost their homes from the demolition of housing estates.
The city is a site of wealth creation, but also a place in which the areas in which the rich live – its alphahoods if you will – enable social and power networks to become established in both open and shadier ways. This is not because there is some grand, fraudulent practice at work among the city’s elites. Instead there is an idea, a sense of how the city should work and what it can deliver, and this notion galvanises and animates many tens of thousands of people who work to ensure that it is protected - because their own pay cheques rely on it.
The idea of the alpha city resides in the sense that upward marching property values are a good thing, that the City of London is gift to city and country, that the rich are self-made wizards of finance, property and technology, and that the maelstrom of urban life that results from these various ingredients makes London simply the best city in the world.
But many of London’s inhabitants are, in reality, victims of this idea. This includes many graduates, new operators of the banking system sharing a flat to get by and many other well-paid professionals who themselves struggle, or see their children floundering in an overpriced housing market.
Right here, right now, it doesn’t seem possible to think of London as the keystone city in a finance system that bridges the world, a place in which the rich, honeyed capital and pampered bodies will again flow. At this very moment the city’s cautiously refilling streets feel deflated by the COVID-19 crisis, like those of its similarly wealthy counterparts, Hong Kong and New York.
The city’s frenetic activity, the wheeling, dealing and the snapping up of luxury homes and other trophy assets are temporarily on ice. Yet only a moment before the city went into lockdown a home was sold, the most expensive ever in the city, to a single Chinese buyer for more than £200 million. In just the first three months of 2019 £1.3bn of homes were sold in the city priced at more than £5 million, the price above which is broadly included as “prime” sales.
Despite this, many in the development and property sectors have complained of the impact of tax tweaks, the impact of Brexit and then a potential death blow dealt by COVID-19. All of this sets the scene for how we might imagine or hope the city to recover, a crossroads much like that after the 2008 financial crisis from which the social disaster of austerity was unleashed. Calls for tax cuts and help for the property sector are already evident.
Now there is something of a great stink. But, unlike the infamous event in which the Thames became blocked following the cholera epidemic of 1848, today it is the fuss being made over wealth and its corrupting influence on the city. The rule of profit-maximising developers and compliant local authorities will continue unless stronger challenges are mounted – planning will need to be reworked and social housing should see a resurgence through state investments (these could be plugged into a green new deal that could prop up builders seeing hard times).
The furious debates to come will also be fuelled by anger over inequalities that were made more transparent by COVID-19. The treatment of key workers in health and social care is one sign of an apparent groundswell of demands for greater recognition of those who are not part of the alpha economy, its losers who are clearly so precious. Commitment to social justice all too easily wavers. One minute the street homeless problem was, as if by magic resolved as the government funded a scheme to bring the homeless off the streetsduring the COVID-19 crisis. A moment later this funding was withdrawn, and rough sleepers are soon to emerge blinking and back on the streets.
It seems possible that future debates about how we plan, build and manage a city like London will be influenced by these inequalities as the roadmap to recovery is slowly unfolded. We should likely be much more angry than we are already, but this ire should be positively channelled toward whatever opportunity we get to make a better choice to ensure London and all of our cities and communities see a more sustainable and socially just future.