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London's Big Property Shark Conference Was Full of Crappy Ideas to Solve the Housing Crisis

Suggestions included halving the size of flats because apparently young people don't want space.
October 27, 2015, 10:30am

Last year's MIPIM UK conference. Photo by Oscar Webb

Let's be honest: there's one reason why you (probably) still live in London. If what you're living can still meaningfully be called life, if where you're living can still meaningfully be called London. This is where things happen, even if they're not happening to you. You might be surrendering half your income to live in a shoebox, but somewhere in this same city, great and important people are doing great and important things, and if you stick around long enough you might get to join them. You too could eat endangered animals, hold champagne orgies in penthouses, or attend MIPIM UK, which took place last week at the Kensington Olympia.

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MIPIM, or the Marché International des Professionnels de l'Immobilier, proudly describes itself as the world's largest real estate exhibition: some 21,000 people drop by the main conference in Cannes every year. This year's second annual British offshoot was dominated by a big conference space, where developers and local authorities can advertise to the 4,000 moneyed investors in attendance. Many stalls offered sweets or mints to entice people in, with a few bottles of champagne discreetly displayed for when a deal is closed. Between them there wandered the representatives of our ruling classes: people with good suits, bad haircuts, and Swarovski crystals encrusted on their iPhone cases.

I don't really have a few million spare to buy up a housing estate, so much of it felt profoundly weird, in the way that it always feels weird to be surrounded by people with an entirely different set of priorities. But here, protected from the outside world by the fair's £495 [$760] entrance fee, our masters of brick and mortar can finally say what they really think.

Some protesters outside this years conference. Photo author's own

When I arrived at the Olympia, there were barricades running along the adjacent streets, police vans growling in nearby alleys, and grim-faced cops on every corner. At the first MIPIM UK conference last year, activists from the Radical Housing Network managed to seriously disrupt the event; in the end police had to draw down steel shutters to stop them bursting in. This time, nobody without a pass was allowed anywhere near the main entrance. Instead, a small clump of RHN demonstrators were left standing around in the drizzle outside a nearby Pizza Express, looking as if they thought that garlic bread were turfing people out their homes.

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"Homes for people," they chanted, sometimes drowned out by passing traffic, "not for profit." But in fact, many of the panels being held at MIPIM were concerned precisely with those people who end renting from the various landowners and investors at the event. There was even one talk on "The Housing Shortage and Rising Inequality," which included Hilary Burkitt of the homelessness charity Shelter. Many of the other panelists speaking throughout the conference weren't busy coming up with new ways to fleece the impudent young. Instead, they seemed gently fascinated by us, as if we were a foreign species, or an unexplained blotch on a petri dish. Sitting in the room as various property tycoons ruminated over the state of their tenants felt almost invasive—it was like eavesdropping on someone as they gossip about you, or rifling through your therapist's notes.

There were some odd moments. At one panel session, on "The Rise of PRS" (the private rented sector), a prospective investor asked the experts "how important having broadband is to these people." They answered, with an anthropologist's self-assurance, that we like it quite a lot. During a talk on "Election Impact and Growth Areas in Student Housing," Richard Simpson, the managing director of property at student housing giant Unite, let some of the audience know how his company had managed to accrue its sizable profits. You have to understand what students want, and a successful investor will pay attention to such important details as providing "a bedroom and bathroom," and offering apps on which residents can "interface with one another."

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Later, Martin Skinner, CEO of the investment company Inspired Asset Management, explained why there isn't enough affordable housing—apparently, "we don't have enough builders" and "can't get enough bricks," which is funny given the number of brick-built luxury projects being hawked elsewhere in the conference. He laid out his own plan to solve the housing crisis—building residential units that are half the normal size. Young people just "don't want the extra space," he explained. "Most of the time they're out," and anyway, it saves them the bother of cleaning it. These units, he said, would be engineered to maximize the available space; to put it in more MIPIM-friendly terms, he compared their design to that of a luxury yacht.

For many, renting seemed to be a matter of personal choice. "Homeowning won't suit everyone," said Legal & General's James Litgate, "just like renting won't suit everyone." Adrian Owen, the executive director of UK residential at BNP Paribas Real Estate, offered the opinion that fewer young people are becoming homeowners—according to government figures, only 800,000 people under 34 actually own the property they live in—because the young, with their Netflix and their Spotify and so on, simply aren't into actually buying things.

But as popular as Netflix might have become, all this may have more to do with the fact that many people just can't afford mortgage deposits that now average £31,000 [$47,500], a figure that far outstrips the average annual income. On the same day that MIPIM UK opened, the Metro reported that rents have risen by 11 percent nationwide in the last five years (19 percent in London), while wages have only risen by 4 percent—meaning that an increasing share of the national income goes directly to landlords, swallowing up any savings that could have gone towards a home. (Meanwhile, the most popular Netflix subscription plan costs £89.88 [$138] a year—a somewhat more manageable 0.3 percent of the average UK wage.)

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Read: It Costs $800 a Month to Live in a Box Inside a London Apartment

At the housing shortage panel, Hilary Burkitt spoke out strongly on the human costs of the soaring rental prices that many at MIPIM were benefiting from. However, she was something of a lone voice. Jon Gooding, the CEO of Dolphin Living, covered some of the same issues: Dolphin Living is a housing association best known for buying up the contested New Era estate in Hackney, and during the panel he proudly announced that rent increases there were being kept below 5 percent, and that the estate was pioneering a new payment system in which residents would be charged rents tailored to their incomes, paying only as much as they could afford. But he had to make a slightly different pitch for why he was doing this, and why the assembled investors shouldn't just dump half of London into the ocean. "It's actually good for the economy to keep lower-paid workers in the city," he said. "We need these people." Whether "these people" need the speculators is a different matter.

Still, even if they are (however reluctantly) resigned to keeping us around, some of the property elite seemed to be terrified of what might happen when we turn angry.

Despite the small number of demonstrators, a few of MIPIM's guest panelists would almost have you thinking the Bolsheviks were at the gates. Speakers commented on there being a "bunch of crazies" outside, speculated that the much-dreaded idea of rent controls might "become a journalist issue and then a political issue," and grimly warned of "riots on the street." In a discussion over the supposed inefficiencies of local councils, Iain Gilbey, a planning lawyer at Pinsent Masons, warned the assembled delegates not to use their considerable political clout to campaign for a more centralized national planning system, because "we'll see a lot more people standing outside Olympia, and that's not good for London." In response, Peabody CEO Stephen Howlett complained that "it does kind of feel like nobody likes us."

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RIBA's cardboard box lounge. Photo authors own

The demonstrators themselves seemed to be much more rational about the situation. I spoke to Geraldine Dening, a RIBA Award-winning architect and founding member of Architects for Social Housing, who had erected a small stack of cardboard boxes in the designated protest area outside Pizza Express. Inside the convention, the Royal Institute of British Architects had constructed a visitors' lounge made from what it described as "cardboard modules," "minimizing construction waste and leaving only good memories."

In response, ASH was using its own makeshift lounge to provide free food for the homeless and hungry, and offer consultation for housing campaigners, with the damp cardboard representing the only home available for hundreds of Londoners. "This is a spatial manifestation of the state of the housing crisis at the moment," Dening said. "The result of what's happening in there is ultimately going to be homelessness."

Una Hodgkins

Down the street, Save Our Hospitals campaigner Una Hodgkins was standing alone on a rainswept traffic island, with the pedestrian crossings on both sides blocked off by metal barricades. "I'm doing it for the cars, really," she admitted, gesturing to a line of vehicles stopped at a red light. Hodgkins was protesting against plans to sell off much of NHS Charing Cross Hospital's land to private developers, plans that would involve closing down the specialist consultant-led A&E department that had saved her father's life. (One of MIPIM's panels last year was titled "Exploring Healthcare: Opportunities for the Property Industry"; this year a similar session was given the more euphemistic name "How Can Property Investment Help the NHS?", although it still promised to explain how public-private partnerships can "drive real returns.")

Back inside the zealously-guarded convention gates, the day's truck and barter ended with a "welcome reception" and "networking drinks." It was a subdued and strangely pathetic affair. Plenty of free booze, and a jazz band, and silent workers wandering around with trays of canapés, and the spectacle of dozens of lone investors on the fringes, gulping down their wine while staring silently at their phones. Nobody danced. Nobody talked. Outside, in the grey and dreary world, over 150,000 people have applied for homelessness assistance since 2014. In the Kensington Olympia, every possible comfort was laid on, and still nobody seemed to feel at home.

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