Rich pickings in London, alpha city

During the lockdown proper, if you took a walk down to the new bit of King’s Cross created out of once derelict railway lands you would have been struck by its emptiness. There’s plenty of shops and eateries but these are high end and the tourists and visitors were not around to splash their money, there are plenty of luxury apartments with £lm-£7m sale tags offering views of the Regent Canal, but many appeared unsold or un-lived in, while amid the prettily landscaped public spaces, security guards were out in force to let you know that this is in fact private land and you are here on sufferance.

Canalside properties in N1C carry £1m-£7m+ price tags

There’s no getting away from it, lockdown or not, the 67-acre site has gone the way of most recent London regeneration schemes by following the money at the expense of the local community, which back in the early planning stages in the 1990s fought for more public housing and much needed social amenities to be included. A primary school and a few homes for social rent may have been thrown in like crumbs for the birds, but overall N1C, the district’s fancy new post code, speaks exclusiveness in a London that in the eyes of academic Rowland Atkinson has increasingly become a playground for the wealthy rather than serving the people who live in it.

After reading his book Alpha City: How London was captured by the super-rich, it’s clear that King’s Cross is only the tip of a very large iceberg in a city that boasts ultra prime developments like One Hyde Park, where a one-bed flat will set you back £4m and a penthouse suite an eye-watering £110m. Or take the 49-storey St George’s Wharf Tower, the largest block in a scheme along the Thames at Vauxhall that was twice winner of the Architectural Journal’s worst building in the world award. That has not put off buyers, two thirds of whom Atkinson says are foreigners and mostly absentee.

The palatial squares of the West End and mansions of Hampstead and Highgate built on earlier waves of wealth are among the additional “luxurious harbours” for the global super-rich wishing to take advantage of London’s pre-eminent financial markets, elite cultural hubs and low levels of state intrusion.

St George’s Wharf development with 49-storey tower

London now has the largest number of wealthy people per head of population, outstripping other comparable world cities like New York and Tokyo. But its alpha ascendancy has gone hand in glove with the “denigration of the poor and a shift in its social politics to one altogether more callous and uncaring”,  argues Atkinson, research chair in inclusive societies at the University of Sheffield.

It’s a process that began in earnest four decades ago but was sharply accelerated by the financial crash of 2008 and ensuing austerity cuts that continue apace. As poverty and homelessness increased and infrastructure deteriorated due to dismantled or privatised services, London’s skyline became littered with steel and glass towers with soaring price tags to match, while areas that were once the preserve of the less well off suddenly became valuable real estate because of their proximity to the centre of town/river/canal/park.

In order for London to maintain its position as the heartland of deregulated capital, sites such as these were seized upon “to feed the machine”, explains Atkinson. This business of accommodating the rich at the expense of the poor is seen most starkly in the flog-off of council estates and land to corporate and private investors, often by Labour-controlled authorities who claim this is the only way of generating income in cash-strapped times. Only 74 flats ended up for social rent in Elephant Park, a nascent alphahood created out of the demolition of the 2,000-flat Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle and yet another example of the “erasure of the public city” by those with money but no social consciousness in cahoots with politicians and planners.   

Atkinson remorselessly picks his way through the madness –  his words –  with its underbelly of  laundered money, tax avoidance and citizens-of-nowhere mentality.  The inequalities are glaring. It is a revealing but unsettling read, whatever page you land on.

Alpha City: How London was captured by the super-rich by Rowland Atkinson is published by Verso, £16.99

This article first appeared in Camden Review on July 3, 2020


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