Protesters at the Olympia exhibition centre, London (All photos by Oscar Webb)
Today was the start of MIPIM UK, an annual four-day conference where property developers, landlords and politicians meet up to work out how to make lots and lots of money in real estate. The event normally takes place in Cannes, so this year the organisers were making a big deal of the fact it's been relocated to the UK – the "property capital of the world". Which, to anyone not in the property business, essentially just means you have to give away far too much of your pay cheque every month if you want to live somewhere with walls.
As delegates entered the Olympia exhibition centre, they were heckled by angry protesters. Since I was wearing a suit, they assumed I was an estate agent (my suit is far too cheap to pass for a property developer's), with one asking, "Here to carve up London, sir?" They were also angrily asking attendees questions like, “Do you know how much rent is in London?” To which the answer was, presumably, “Yes, that’s exactly why I’m here.”
One guy was arrested for hitting a protester.
Kicking off the event was the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who made a speech in a room festooned with press and property big-wigs. He started with some of his trademark buffoonery, saying, “I thought MIPIM stood for ‘meet me in the pool in a minute’,” which was actually pretty funny at the time, but doesn't have quite the same ring to it written down.
Then it was time to get serious. You see, Johnson understands the plight of Londoners who can’t afford houses.
“I had a blast from the past this morning,” he told us. “As I got here I had to cycle down Sinclair Road. Usually there's a forest of estate agent signs outside the home in Sinclair Road. They’re all gone now, and I thought how absolutely impossible it was for my kid’s generation to hope, when they come down from university, that they could buy a flat in Sinclair Road, because prices have gone up massively.”
Johnson had bought a Sinclair Road flat with a mortgage of £93,000 in 1987, and said that, according to Zoopla, properties there are now going for £1.6 million. “Prices across London have gone up 20 percent in the last year,” he said.
Still, he managed to put a positive spin on things. “Compliments to London – it’s a sign of success, isn’t it? It reflects the reality that people love London and they want to live in this city with an unprecedented intensity.”
Then he spelled out the causes for this massive hike in the capital's property prices. For one, people are living longer and longer, and staying in London rather than retiring to the seaside. “Life expectancy under this mayoralty,” he joked, “has gone up 18 months for a man, something slightly less for a woman – nevermind.”
He also said how more people have been born this year since England won the World Cup in 1966, before acknowledging how people are being forced to live further and further from where they work. “People cannot live anywhere near their place of work," he said. "And there is, in my view, an understandable sense of social injustice. Because the cost of a home – that most basic of human needs – seems to recede ever upwards and beyond people’s reach.”
Weirdly, the Conservative mayor chose not to mention the severe lack of social housing, caused by the fire sale of council houses under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. There was also nothing about the recent state-led gentrification drive, which is seeing councils sell off their social housing so they can replace it with swanky flats, forcing the former tenants to move away from their homes and neighbourhoods – or, in some cases, to different cities altogether.
Obviously increased population has an effect, but, for Johnson, London’s housing crisis is a force of nature that can be boiled down to everyone procreating and the fact that London is so bloody great; it's got nothing to do with the politicians.
Next, he bashed "two currently popular non-solutions”. The first was the concept of cutting investment in the capital and spending the money elsewhere – which, as Mayor of London, he obviously isn't too keen on. The second was the idea that it's "somehow all the fault of foreign investors, and that we need to repel their enthusiasm with a pitch fork: ‘Hop off, you nasty international investors with your foreign money.'”
Aware of his audience, he said, “I think that is absolute rubbish,” before pointing out that they don’t own as much of London as people tend to believe.
Having rubbished those theories, he said, “The real solution is obvious – it’s to build hundreds of thousands more homes. Homes that are affordable for all Londoners. And I’m very proud of the record of this mayoralty. We’ve not only so far built a record number of affordable homes… This year we will build more homes in London than any year since 1980.”
And what example did he use to illustrate his idea of a shiny new affordable London? “Battersea Power Station – that mouldering old power station, fit for nothing but the cover of a Pink Floyd album, is now being transformed into homes and offices and jobs.”
The development at Battersea power station will see flats sold for £30 million. In May, the company developing it – whose senior advisor is a former tory Cabinet member called Lord Strathclyde (full name: the Right Honourable Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith) – sold £500 million worth of flats in the development within a matter of days. The cheapest properties were studio flats – at £800,000 each.
Only a very small number of “affordable homes” will be built, and the first won’t appear until “phase three” of the development, some years into the future. Even the Express called Lord Strathclyde’s development a “ghetto for the rich”, attracting the international jetset and “keeping local buyers out”.
That said, Johnson was concerned about shifting people out – namely, foreign investors. Railing against what he saw as xenophobia, he said, “I don’t want at all to expel any oligarch from the planet Zog. We must get on with teaching the oligarchs' children and making the streets safe for everybody – oligarchs included.”
Overall, Johnson said, there will be half a million new homes for London in the next ten years. We don’t need to look to the future to understand what Boris’s affordable vision will look like. Just this month, Johnson was criticised for approving the development of “affordable” homes, which will cost £2,800 to rent.
Indeed, Boris himself acknowledged that it’s already happening. “I don’t know whether you’ve had the chance to look at the skyline of London in the last few months, but it’s changing at an absolutely extraordinary speed – an accelerated David Attenborough nature film about the return of spring to the Canadian tundra,” he said, praising, “these strange, exotic beavers that are emerging" thanks to developers.
These new beavers will make London "not just the most coveted city on Earth", but also "the most liveable city on Earth for everybody – absolutely everybody”.
I don’t know about you, but when I look at London’s new towering skyline, I assume that I’m looking more at a load of buildings with designated poor doors than somewhere "absolutely everybody" – including those on minimum wage – can live.
Stalin said, “Quantity has a quality all its own,” and Johnson was keen to impress that the sheer numbers of homes built will make them accessible. But when those homes are high-end apartments rather than cheap council flats, they push up prices and push poor people out. Even if "affordable" homes are going for less than market rate, it doesn't really count for anything if that market rate is already through the roof.
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