Money isn’t everything when it comes to life in London’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, but it counts for an awful lot. Good social standing increasingly makes way to, or indeed hangs onto, economic power as new and old elites jostle for space and a place in the city. Many of the city’s private clubs can be accessed through largesse. Palatial homes can be acquired through the help of private agents. Even properties that appear not to be for sale magically become available when the right number is presented. Publicly listed sports teams means that controlling stakes can be purchased so that the prospect of watching football matches from boxes is added to the traditional role of those in opera houses and theatres. Money brings with it the power of influence and the city becomes key to its expression.
Access to the stellar social circuits and networks of the city are only granted to a small elite who know its ways, shibboleths and who possess, of course, the necessary resources. Entry to London’s political life can be gained through party auctions for tennis matches and dinners, or by direct donations. The right schools can be accessed by fees, while the price of a university place at one of the elite institutions is often significantly cheaper than the schooling that preceded it. Even public life is swayed by big money, with reports of the city’s politicians, councillors and planners involved in unlawful and unjust planning decisions.
To understand the life support system of the alpha city we also need to understand how its mobility systems, the chauffeured cars, private jets and powerful personal vehicles help to stitch together the fine fabric of the city’s diverse and opulent locations. Here the suburban private airports are key, as is the single inner-city heliport and rural helipads at enormous private residences or gated communities. Meanwhile, where necessary, visitors, consultants or family members can be temporarily accommodated in one of London’s 75 five-star hotels, themselves often owned by sovereign wealth funds or rich individuals, including the recent transfer of the Ritz hotel from the reclusive billionaire Barclay twins (residents of a castle on an island they own in the Channel Islands) to a Qatari individual for £800m.
Taken as a whole London is a complex knot comprising important corporate HQs, luxury shopping and leisure destinations, party circuits, a set of pathways and gateways to nice places through biometrically controlled doors and club entrances. It is an amalgam of people, places and a much wider cast of actors. All play a carefully co-ordinated role or bit part to maintain the impression of an alpha city-world in which the needs of its richest residents and temporary entrants are afforded a delightful and untroubled experience. This opulent theatre is held together by immense flows of capital, electronic systems of surveillance and embraced by a city and its national government that see only virtue in excess.
The alpha city’s life-support system of its super-rich residents is a non-random geography of homes, hotels, workplaces, services and clubs. It is, of course, very much concentrated in only the finest ‘prime’ neighbourhoods in a city that can lay claim to one of the single-largest concentrations of the wealthy across the globe. Whether this life support system, like some gilded exoskeleton, ultimately contributes meaningfully to the everyday life and social needs of London’s citizens is a much thornier question.
Capturing the city for capital
It may be very easy to be ensnared by the command of stellar resources by London’s richest. To be among the city’s 400 richest one would need disposable assets of at around £350m. But to become transfixed by this world invites the charge of apathy and appreciation where condemnation or criticism might be more appropriate. This is because, as we are increasingly aware, societies and cities characterised by leadership that court excess and the wealthy generate distinctive and problematic impacts for everyone excluded from this rising tide of riches.
Traditionally we might say that the lives and outcomes of a city’s places and communities are mediated by a political domain that moderates the excesses and deficits of a market economy. But this no longer seems tenable. For some time the city has operated, via its political, real estate, finance and corporate institutions, to advance the value of markets, wealth and the rich and to denigrate, ignore or ultimately damage those excluded by these activities. The city has produced a kind of wealth economy. The model of political life as a restraint on capitalist excess has increasingly felt outmoded. London destroys its social assets to make way for space to invest, a city in which around 80 public housing estates have been demolished and remodelled. Taxes have been reduced alongside any and all investments possible in social infrastructure and welfare, leaving life in limbo for many who rent, work in insecure jobs or suffer ill-health and the quarter who live in poverty.
The past financial crisis now appears, like a cracked mirror, to partially reflect our present. COVID will bring its own kind of financial troubles, but already shows the capacity of state and finance to mobilise its muscle to help restore and maintain the city’s longstanding winners. Here it is important to remember that the previous crisis generated a cleaving away at the sustenance of the city’s unfortunate and yielded the breaking and remaking of communities and housing – often justified as bringing apparently wonderful new opportunities. Property buyers, developers and international capital were deemed vital through a recession to help animate an otherwise lifeless city and building projects that would spin benefits for many communities. But such stories have too often been revealed as the slogans of those with interest only in more tightly wiring a system to extract even more value for those who already had plenty. Blind eyes were turned to criminal capital, house prices shot-up through their own roofs, financial institutions were gifted rounds of state finance and house builders generated record profits while bleating about contributing even modest amounts of social or even affordable housing.
To say London is a wealthy city is too obvious. The deeper truth of its current reality is that this extraordinary city operates in ways deep and often subtle ways to permit the wealthy to disregard the legitimate call of its poor and, increasingly, its middle-income households. There is a sense that an alpha city, a city constructed to attract and sustain the rich, is also one designed to create spaces and institutions that maintain the wealthy and enable a vision of the outside world stripped of any sight of social distress. This proposition is important to help us to understand not only why the rich flock to the city, but also to understand the inner world of the rich – a world of seclusion, luxury and comfort that is disconnected from the decaying, damaged and sometimes dangerous districts that lie in some kind of elsewhere across the wider city.
This curious conjunction of capital, neoliberal statecraft and economics comes together in ways deliver deepening forms of social injustice and injury. An alpha city has in many ways already wrought devastation on the poor, disabled, minority ethnic groups and the elderly. The culture and seclusion of many among its political elite is built from disinterest or callous attempts defunding, displacing and discriminating. In this sense the city is a long way from delivering any real sense of inclusion, social justice or of spreading the enormous dividends of its finance-driven economy so that all might achieve a stake or greater well-being as a result.
The result has been a wall of high-rise apartments along the Thames, many now empty, and a property economy whose gains are narrowly distributed. Such a model looked broken in the aftermath of the last financial crisis, but it will likely form the template again in which capital is identified as a fickle saviour that must be wooed in order for the city to survive the coming crisis. This time the techniques for doing so will like involve the standard methods of pro-development planning and low taxes alongside proposals for freeports and continued tolerance of tax evaders and avoiders. We risk the same pattern of state rescues and corporate abandonment of the city’s communities in the decade to come.
It would be far too unsubtle to suggest that the rich and those enabling their lifestyles and investments have directly plotted to make things worse for the city’s poor and its middle classes. But the direction of travel is clear – a kind of forwards while also backwards. The mechanism delivering such outcomes is the momentum and force generated by money capital and its massive concentration in but a few hands. It is this force that influences the city’s layers of government, its corporate life, its interconnected clubs and networks. Similarly money has the power to galvanise and enlist many others to defend it. In this sense a much larger group of enabler actors and institutions is involved, including museums, hospitals, galleries, the staff of restaurants, chauffeurs, taxi drivers and numerous other personnel who directly or indirectly serve those who bring money to the city.
The ruling logic of money has helped to deactivate the state’s functions as a source of care and social provision that so many rely upon. Inequality is justified because the rich are quite simply brilliant or because they give to charity, or perhaps because they own a good football team. Meanwhile social supports are kicked away under the mantra that the cupboard is empty. And the cupboard is surely even more bare in this renewed moment of crisis.
Instead of targeting public housing estates, migrants and teenage gangs as the root of urban malaise we can also recognise how it might be that the city’s super wealthy residents and the voices allied to them are a kind of socially destabilising influence on the city – driving, as they do, political divestment from support for the poor, the withdrawal from social care and social services, the intensification of inequalities and indeed the multibillion pound illicit economies focused around organised criminal activity, money laundering, tax evasion, art, property and finance. None of this sounds good but it will be ignored and brushed aside to permit and celebrate the vision of a property owning, wealth creating, magic money machine.
The wealthy don’t lobby to take over a city and they don’t do the dirty work of kicking the poor out of it. A rather more elusive and hidden relationship exists between a coterie of interested parties keen to reduce state costs and justify a low tax environment in order to compete for globally mobile capital and capitalists. City capture operates through an ideological ensnaring of interests whose subsequent turn to the logic of markets has helped to unhome the poor. Such a squeeze can now be seen quite clearly in what many have described as the “social cleansing” of the city.
How far the city can continue to be squeezed while sowing seeds of serious discontent and popular protest? This remains a more difficult question to answer – the extent to which poorer households can be excluded from opportunity seems to be significant, but it is also the case that the displacement of many beyond the city may have helped at least partially to defuse the possibility of a new urban insurgency. Despite this the fracture lines built from austerity and inequality are, right now, being wedged further apart by the incendiary politics of COVID and Black Lives Matter, alongside a broadening of anxiety about the destructive ecological consequences of our economy. We can only hope that a more consensual, moderating and socially just politics emerges in the current maelstrom.
As the enabling class formed around property, finance and corporate life has courted wealthy patrons it has paved, almost literally, the way forward for capital – grand designs and big schemes to sell state assets, doing so even in some cases in the very name of providing for those in need. The sale of public housing, the exporting of London’s homeless, the bedroom taxes increasing the cost of accommodation, the declining support for young people, the demolition of estates and selling of public land for monoform homes for the rich are the features of this alpha city.
This city appears to thrive to the extent that it shrivels and denies provision to those seen as hangers-on - if we could just get rid of them imagine what a better place this neighbourhood would be and how much money ‘we’ could make. This sense of intransigent and troublesome unfortunates often fuels an indignation among those for whom a glittering future city also represents a fat future pay cheque – taxes, tax havens, evasion, immense wealth, all must remain unchallenged because to do so would somehow turn this tap off or, worse, redirect its flow somewhere else. Yet in many ways this is more an amoral than an immoral city – it’s just how business and the power of money works, it is nothing personal. So it is that those with bleeding hearts and sad stories of community loss or dislocation should go and live somewhere else, or understand – this is just how it works.
Rowland Atkinson is the author of Alpha City: How London Was Captured by the Super-Rich, out now![book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Who owns London? In recent decades, it has fallen into the hands of the super-rich. It is today the essential “World City” for High-Net-Worth Individuals and Ultra-High-Net-Worth Individuals. Compared to New York or Tokyo, the two cities that bear the closest comparison, it has the largest number of wealthy people per head of population. Taken as a whole, London is the epicentre of the world’s finance markets, an elite cultural hub, and a place to hide one’s wealth.
Rowland Atkinson presents a history of the property boom economy, going back to the end of Empire. It tells the story of eager developers, sovereign wealth and grasping politicians, all paving the way for the wealthy colonisation of the cityscape. The consequences of this transformation of the capital for capital is the brutal expulsion of the urban poor, austerity, cuts, demolitions, and a catalogue of social injustices. This Faustian pact has resulted in the sale and destruction of public assets, while the rich turn a blind eye toward criminal money laundering to feather their own nests.
Alpha City moves from gated communities and the mega-houses of the super-rich to the disturbing rise of evictions and displacements from the city. It shows how the consequences of widening inequality have an impact on the urban landscape.