I have seen the future – and the future is Paris and Geneva.
The future is a clean, dull city populated by clean, dull rich people and clean, dull old people. The future is joyless Michelin starred restaurants and shops selling £3,000 chandeliers.
In the 1990s, we accidentally stumbled upon the formula for a perfect city. Exactly halfway between East and West, serious history, attractive (but not chocolate-boxy), English-speaking, and a capital for the creative industries and financial services. Better still, years of decline and depopulation had left vast central swathes of the city very affordable. So, the cool kids piled in. And, suddenly, a rather grey, down-at-heel capital, a place that had never quite quite recovered from losing an Empire (and winning a war) began to swing again.
Back then we all lived in central London, because we all could. It was normal to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Marylebone or Maida Vale or Primrose Hill or Notting Hill. Not because we were rich, but because London was cheap. And it felt fantastic. Here was a city whose fortunes were reviving and, as 20-somethings, ready to make our mark on the world, we really were bang in the middle of things.
Two decades on and you can play a nostalgic little game where you remind yourself what groups London’s inner neighbourhoods were known for 20 years ago. Hampstead: intellectuals; Islington: media trendies; Camden: bohemians, goths and punks; Fulham: thick poshos who couldn’t afford Chelsea; Notting Hill: cool kids; Chelsea: rich people. Now, every single one of these is just rich people. If you want to own a house (or often just a flat) in these places, you need a six figure salary or you can forget it. And, for anyone normal, that means working in finance.
As for the bits of London that always were rich – Mayfair, Chelsea and Kensington, they’ve moved up to the next level. Ultra-prime central London is fast becoming a ghost-town where absentee investors park their wealth. As some wag put it, houses in Mayfair are now bitcoins for oligarchs.
So, what does this have to do with Paris and Geneva? The answer is that both are places where the rich have socially cleansed the centres. Inner Paris is a fairytale for wealthy people in their fifties (and outer Paris looks like Stalingrad with ethnic strife) while Geneva has dispensed with the poor altogether. As a result, both cities are safe, pretty and rather boring places to live – and soon London will be too.
Why? Because the financiers who can afford inner London neighbourhoods are not cool. Visit Canary Wharf at on any weekday lunchtime and watch the braying, pink-shirted bankers disporting themselves. Not cool. Peruse the shops at Canary Wharf. From Gap to Tiffany’s, they’re all chains stores and you could be anywhere wealthy, safe and dull in the world. Rich people like making money and spending it on dull, expensive things. That’s what they do – and they’re very good it. But being a high-end cog in the machine is not cool.
The international rich – a mixture of Eurotrash and Middle-Eastern Princelings – are worse still. You only have to visit any nightclub in Mayfair to see the Swiss-educated Euro-riche idea of cool. It’s a bit like Jay-Z as reimagined by someone who works at Goldman Sachs. As for the super-rich, the oligarchs, they don’t even bother showing up. They just buy houses and leave them empty.
All of this has pushed the well-off middle classes into Zone 2. And it leaves the really cool kids – the art students and musicians and people starting out in the creative industries in Zone 3, or worse. The 22 year-olds of today don’t walk home from clubbing in Camden like we did. The scruffy squares and terraces that used to house a mixture of squats, bohemians, unreconstructed Marxists and God knows what else now all gleam with Farrow & Ball and the houses sport those identikit Elle Deco interiors that are the end result of bankers’ wives’ “visions”.
These people like high-end chains, expensive restaurants and interiors shops. They don’t like edgy clubs and interesting markets. They are the kind of people who might buy a Damien Hirst, but would never discover the next Damien Hirst. These days, there’s probably more real cool in a single pub near Goldsmiths College (in New Cross) than there is in the whole of Notting Hill.
Of course, they will all tell you that they love cool London – and they gain energy from the urban buzz. But they really are just saying that. From the Wapping Project to the Ministry of Sound there’s a long list of long-established venues that have been shut or threatened with closure by wealthy incomers who didn’t like the noise. Or the rubbish. Or the riff-raff. These people love the idea of living somewhere happening, but they can’t bear the reality. What they really want is a kind of Singapore with Victorian houses where everything works and everyone works and, besides, if you can get that club closed, your property will go up by another 15%.
The other group that likes the way London is going is Britain’s army of amateur landlords – the buy-to-let brigade. I’m sure some of them are perfectly nice, but most of the ones I’ve met sound like the bastard offspring of Kirstie Allsopp and Ayn Rand, secure in the conceit that having been the right age to buy a house in Clapham for peanuts in 1996 makes them investing geniuses.
These groups are a minority. Taken together London’s ultra-high earners, its ultra-wealthy foreigners and its BTL brigade number what, some hundreds of thousand people? Yet the entire city is run for their benefit. Tax empty houses? Why, no. We wouldn’t want to upset some ex-KGB thug who looted the Kazakh treasury in the mid 1990s. We wouldn’t want to annoy a banker who “honestly” didn’t know he was investing the Mexican cartels’ blood-soaked wealth. We wouldn’t even knock a few percentage points off the returns on some latter-day Rachman’s buy-to-let portfolio.
Boris presides over all this like a comedy buffoon. He says he’s maintaining London’s edge as a leading business centre. But all he’s doing is bending over backwards for the rich and the finance industry – and he’s actually starting to harm the creative industries, the media and the arts. He talks about the benefits that being a global magnet for wealth bring to London, but, to adapt a John Stewart joke, when the super-rich appear to do something for your benefit, that’s just the invisible hand of the market giving you a reach-around.
A few months back, I ranted about the Shoreditchification of London’s inner suburbs. But this is what happens when you raise property prices to the point that the cool kids can barely afford Tower Hamlets. Five years most of my staff lived within a mile of Proud Camden. Now, none of them live close. Shoreditch may be annoying as a hipster Mecca, but it’ll much worse in five years’ time when it’s a rich ghetto full of bankers who think they’ve discovered somewhere edgy.
We’re still (just) at a point where we could change things. I’d start with the easy stuff. You bought a house next door to a famous music venue that’s been running for 40 years. Too bad. That was priced into your purchase and you don’t get to close down a local business because you’ve decided that rock music’s annoying when you’re trying to dream up new ways to short the Yen. Ditto, living in urban centres. These places are lively and fun and cool. If you don’t like it, some parts of Zone 4 have the peace and quiet you crave.
Next, build high and build dense. Build over Tube cuttings (like they’ve done in Paris, as it happens) and make a proper percentage of the buildings affordable. Enforce affordability and mixing ruthlessly – don’t allow charades like Mount Pleasant and the Heygate Estate happen again and really punish those who allowed them to happen the first time. Tax the hell out of fourth and fifth and unoccupied homes. Close all the buy-to-let tax loopholes. I’d also shove up stamp duty on places over a million pounds too. Yes, it’s a mansion tax. So what? Your £2m house is part of the greatest transfer of wealth from the young to the old this country has ever seen.
However, as our government is drawn largely from the beneficiaries of the dullification of London rather than its victims, I don’t see much changing soon. Dave is so out of touch he probably thinks that living in Notting Hill gives him an insight into what the cool kids like. Boris is a cheerleader for the rich and loathsome. And 25 year-olds don’t vote.
In the short term, our city’s young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Is New Cross the new Peckham? Is Walthamstow the new Dalston? But there are limits to this: there’s not much of a vibe in Ruislip and there never will be; really, the cool inner suburb ship sailed in 2005. So, when you’re stuck out amongst the pebble-dashed semis of Zone 4, miles from a centre that’s mainly chain shops, boutiques for the tacky rich and restaurants you can’t afford or even book, you might start wondering if the World’s Greatest City (TM) really is for you.
Then maybe you’ll visit friends, somewhere like Bristol or Newcastle or Leeds or Glasgow. And maybe you’ll discover that there you can buy a house that’s walking distance to a centre full of shops that cater to you, restaurants that want your custom and pubs and clubs whose prices wouldn’t make someone in Gstaad blanch.
So there you have it. Perhaps this story has a happy ending of sorts. Perhaps London’s craven fealty to the ghastly rich will finally accomplish what no government policy ever has – it will rejuvenate our provincial cities.
I have seen the future – and the future is Paris and Geneva.