The MIPIM UK property conference took place in London for the first time last week, playing host to property investors from around the world and politicians from up and down the UK. Those in attendance listened to a Boris Johnson speech in which he held up a decadently pricey redevelopment project as a beacon of the affordable new London; attended various other panel discussions; and chatted about the big real life Monopoly game they control over a load of free booze.
According to the host of one talk I went to, London, currently, is “buzzing”.
“The general sentiment right now is that we’re on top of the world here in London,” he said. That was the view from inside the conference. Outside, protesters were heckling delegates as they arrived, angry that for people struggling to pay rent, living in London can feel less like you’re on top of the world and more like you’re at the bottom of the pile.
With its reputation as a knees up for spivs (it's usually held in Cannes, in case any more evidence was needed), you could be forgiven for thinking the delegates inside were laughing about the plebs protesting outside, all while knocking back magnums of champagne and devising innovative new ways to rinse the poor for even more rent.
This is only partly true. In various talks reference was made to the protests, and some mentioned the fact that housing is a huge political issue. "The property industry is paying attention," seemed to be the message.
That can be taken as a victory for groups like [Radical Housing Network](http:// http://www.standardevening.co.uk/), who organised the picket. The hecklers had forced people who would prefer to talk endlessly about property as a commodity to discuss housing as a thing that people actually need to live in.
That said, the protesters probably wouldn’t have been too happy with the solutions that were being discussed – particularly the talk called, “Exploring Healthcare: Opportunities for the Property Industry”, in which people got very excited about making money out of the NHS. That panel included someone from Capita, an outsourcing company famous for both processing disability benefits so slowly that a number of terminally ill people died before they got their money, and for the time they told some legal residents of UK that they were illegal immigrants who had to leave the country forever.
Asking a load of property investors to solve the housing crisis is kind of like asking a barman to cure your hangover. At times, this led to weird results and banal management speak. The most bizarre came in a session about how to incentivise development, in which people were really concerned about “some sort of disconnect between the carrots and sticks”.
Foreign investors have gained something of a pariah status in the UK by parking their money – gained by, say, fleecing their countries’ national oil wealth – in UK property and subsequently jacking up housing prices. In a session called “Foreign Investment in Housing: Good for the UK or Good for Investors?” it was easy to see why people don’t like them. The speakers were all very excited about Britain, and London in particular, which they saw as the “number one global city” that is seeing just the start of a wave of investment.
“London is our first choice for our international expansion platform,” said Michael Purefoy from the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group. But they also warned that if anybody tried to tax their massive profits any more, they would simply leave.
Nick Candy, the developer behind the record breakingly expensive penthouses of One Hyde Park, warned, “Whichever way they choose to tax it, every investor has a choice and they don’t have to choose London. There are other places in the world; there are tax-free places – Singapore and Dubai – or higher tax rates like Los Angeles or New York. They have a choice. And unless we’re competitive on a global level, London and the UK will suffer, simple as that.”
It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that if the capital tries to compete with somewhere that still has actual slaves, then London's rent payers are unlikely to come out on top. In any case, the fact is that some members of Candy’s clientele are already trying their best not to pay much tax. Last year, Vanity Fair reported that a high number of One Hyde Park apartments are owned by companies in offshore tax havens.
Joe Burns, head honcho of “super-prime” developer Oliver Burns, said that foreign investment would provide the “expertise” to solve the housing crisis, as if everyone in the UK has just forgotten how to build homes that people could afford to live in, leaving us with no option but to consult some Malaysian venture capitalists.
He had more of a point, though, when he asked how more homes are going to be built without money from these people. The fact is, with budgets being cut, the only way councils can afford to build houses is through private investors. But those investors want to build posh flats, not affordable or social housing.
This was thrown into sharp relief by Lib Peck – leader of the council in Lambeth, South London – in a session called, “The Case for Investing in Affordable Housing”. She talked a good game on gentrification and the importance of mixed communities, and spoke of “seizing opportunities for inward investment that matches our politics as well”. But the tension between the two was made clear when she began to talk about “pragmatism” and “imaginative ways to bring in investment” – which sounded a lot like “doing what the developers want” – before slating the protesters outside.
“It’s not to say that I’m not drawn to some of their concerns around gentrification – I can absolutely understand them,” she said. “But the naivety of just assuming that you can ignore the private sector when that’s where the money takes us seems to be just that – naïve – and not really dealing with some of the problems we have.”
Lambeth resident Julian Hall has been fighting for the last few years to save his “shortlife” home from repossession by the council, who want to sell it on for developers to turn into a much more swanky residence. He'd been at the alternative housing conference that was taking place down the road. I asked him about the “naïve” comment.
“She would say that, wouldn’t she?” he said. “The people outside were trying to make a point about the urgent need for social housing. The kind of deals that are being done with developers – and the percentages of social housing that people are getting out of them – are really not sufficient. If anyone’s being naïve it’s her.”
If councils do insist on being fatalistically tied to private investors for their housing funding, and attending events like MIPIM, then the outlook is pretty bleak. The agenda of these events, and the attitude of the attendees towards housing that people can actually afford, was laid bare by the MIPIM UK Awards. The ceremony looked like a kind of beauty contest for old men and was presented by Claire Balding, which struck me as a bit weird for some reason.
To take a couple of examples of the victors, Michael Heseltine won the “lifetime achievement award” – his key achievements in property being to implement the “Right to Buy” that sold off Britain’s social housing under Thatcher. The regeneration of Earl’s Court was given the “best future project” award. This 77 acre redevelopment will mean the demolition of two council estates – 760 homes and upwards of 2,000 residents – and the Earl’s Court exhibition centre. The new development will have over 7,000 flats – only 11 percent of which will be “affordable”. A one-bed flat will cost £600,000.
If local councillors continue to drink fizzy wine in places where these kinds of developments are held up as examples of best practice, rather than spending time with the communities that they destroy, we can only look forward to London becoming even more unbearably expensive for the people trying to live in it.
Photography and additional reporting by Oscar Webb