We Went to Last Night's Property Developer Awards, a Circle-Jerk for the Gentrification Sharks Ruining London
The men and women fucking over the capital thought it would be a good idea to all get in one room and pat each other on the back.
Here's a blindingly obvious statement: the London property market is fucked. And not fucked in a "beautiful and moving expression of physical love" kind of way, nor even as in some seductive deviant fantasy. With housing in London, it's more of a chained-to-a-basement-radiator-in-an-unending-cycle-of-horror-while-your-torturers-laugh sort of scenario.
But don't take my word for it. Ask the Bank of England. Last year, Marc Carney, the Bank's Governor, identified structural problems in the housing market as "the biggest risk to financial stability, and therefore to the durability of the expansion". That's Financial Institution-ese for "a complete and utter disaster".
Now, one of the immutable laws of fucking is that there is a fucker and fuckee. In the case of London, the fuckees are pretty much anyone earning less than a hundred grand a year. So, most of us, then.
The fuckers, on the other hand, are a small clique of property developers and investors who comprise the active partner in this grand act of municipal coitus. (To mercilessly extend the metaphor, the politicians who cravenly facilitate the corrupt land grabs can be considered fluffers.) Those evicting social housing tenants to make way for extraordinarily expensive flats, most of which will inevitably sit empty, their owners unable to convince anyone to spend £5,000 a month on a two-bed penthouse in Elephant and Castle. Those demolishing pubs without permission. Those sandblasting any character out of the city with their towering, mirrored blocks of flats.
So what do you do when you and your colleagues have just done all that – when you've just fucked an entire metropolitan area, and one of the great capitals of Western Europe? Well, you get together and give yourselves a bunch of awards, of course.
Which brings us to The London Property Awards 2015, hosted by Property Week at Grosvenor House, yesterday evening.
Yep: the people who run the London property market thought they deserved prizes. The guys doing all this fucking figured they should get together to slap each other on the back and urge one another onwards.
The awards themselves make amusing reading. Funnily enough, there is no award for Social Cleansing, no Prize for Most Effective Avoider of Affordable Housing Provisions or Best Provider of Safe Havens for Foreign Flight Capital. For those to be among the categories there would have to be a modicum of underlying reason and justice in the universe, and for London's fuckers to have an interest in facing up to what they do. But there isn't, and they don't.
Watch 'Regeneration Game', our film about the ruthless gentrification of London
Instead we were left with the bizarre spectacle of Hammerson, a major British property development firm, being nominated for "Sustainability Achievement", despite their planned seven-tower monstrosity at Bishopsgate Goods Yard including only 10 percent "affordable" housing, not the 50 percent required by both Hackney and Tower Hamlets Councils.
Cathedral were up for Developer of the Year. This is the company that ended 2014 having to actually pull a promotional video for their Deptford Rise development after a massive backlash against their accidental honesty about their deliberate gentrification of the area. The property behemoth Land Securities were nominated for three prizes, including Property Company of the Year, despite the fact they were recently busted trying to evade £60 million in UK tax.
But what's most staggering about these awards is that they happened at all. The old story goes that the Emperor Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned, neatly providing the next two millennia with their go-to example of guy-in-charge-out-of-touch-with-the-mood-of-the-population. Standing outside Grosvenor House yesterday it didn't feel so much like Nero playing the fiddle as much as Nero hosting a Grammy Awards ceremony in which every category is Fiddling and he's the winner of every single trophy.
The sheer tone-deaf grossness of a £3,000-a-table property industry circle jerk in a Park Lane hotel was not lost on London's activist community, who turned up to protest and make sure the voices of the city's fuckees were heard.
The protestors were the usual mixed bag of articulate young people and shouty crusties, drawn from a wide pool of organisations, from March for the Homeless to Friends of the Joiners Arms and various other housing and squatters rights groups.
I asked Charlotte Gerada from Friends of the Joiners why they had come down. "We're disgusted that property developers are here to pat themselves on the back when they're responsible for tearing up communities, destroying social housing and making people homeless through evictions," she said.
"It's absolutely vulgar that at the peak of a real housing crisis – not just in London, but in the whole country – with homelessness levels at the highest they've ever been, rent at the highest level it's ever been, that they could feel comfortable celebrating themselves and being so unaware of the political climate. They need to understand how vulnerable and oppressed people are. I hope they leave here tonight hanging their heads in shame."
Not all the protesters were quite so eloquent. One group unfurled a large "No More Deaths On Our Streets" banner and physically blockaded the entrance of the hotel. As the guests – largely groups of white men wearing bow ties and middle-age spread – trickled in, this lot would shout, "Scum! Scum! Scum!" and block their way. This led to some scuffles with the hotel bouncers, and occasionally even with the bow tie brigade themselves.
Eventually the hotel got wise and started funnelling the guests in through various side entrances of the building. What this meant, however, is that we all ended up in a melee of suited property sharks, screaming protesters, glowering bouncers and a scrum of journalists, everyone sprinting back and forth from door to door like a sort of maniacal game of whack-a-mole. Eventually the protesters even stormed the large Foxtons outlet that's conveniently part of the Grosvenor's ground floor.
Like so much of the best communication between fucker and fuckee, this protest was a noisy, messy business. And like so much of the worst, it was very one-sided. The property developers mainly responded to being called scum with that highly English mannerism, the thin-lipped smile of desperate awkwardness. You could almost hear them telling themselves, "It's alright, Henry, ignore the nasty street people, you'll be safe inside soon." A few did try to play it cool, shooting the protesters smug winks. It didn't work.
I tried to talk to several of the property guys on their way in, to get their take on the awards, the protest and the larger picture of their industry. I was consistently brushed off with a wall of passive-aggression, apart from one guy named Marc who stopped to chat. He turned out to be a reasonable man who declined to tell me his full name or where he worked, but recognised there were deep structural problems in the UK property industry, and even expressed some sympathy for the protesters, though he disapproved of their methods. Which I suppose is understandable when people are shouting. "Scum, Scum, Scum! Shame, Shame, Shame!" at you.
After a couple of hours all of the property princes had run the gauntlet and filtered into the hotel. Evening came on and things died down a bit. Two protesters had been arrested, but only in a way that indicated the police were trying to make an example for everyone else.
Then, just as I was preparing to leave, several storeys up, some faces popped over one of the Grosvenor's top-floor smoking balconies. A couple of suited guys, giggling like nervous schoolboys, started waving and raising their drinks to the protesters way down on the pavement; who promptly chanted abuse back at them through their loudspeakers.
And right there was my abiding image of how the London property market functions: the fuckers laughing up in the tower, but with an awkward, self-conscious edge to their mirth, knowing that their bubble might burst at any time – and the fuckees shouting on the street below, just waiting for the day it does.
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