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'This Is the Social Cleansing of London' — Housing Protests as World's Largest Property Fair Comes to Town

London property is increasingly being used as a 'global reserve currency' for the rich — and not all of its residents are happy about it.
October 22, 2014, 10:00am
Imagen vía Reuters

Last week, the world's biggest property development convention came to London for the first time. Welcomed with "great joy" by London's Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, MIPIM has for all of its 25-year existence been headquartered in Cannes, where every year, a couple of months before the French Riviera city rolls out the red carpet for the glitterati of the film world, it stages an exclusive forum for the major players of the international real estate scene.

This year, however, with their eyes trained on London's soaring property prices, the organizers of MIPIM have decided that "the real estate capital of the world" needed an event of its very own.

Like many world capitals such as New York, London has been struggling with questions of gentrification, foreign investment and affordable housing, as astonishing property price growth and a favorable tax regime attracts wealthy external buyers looking for strong returns and a safe place to park their money. But while Johnson insists that such investment is key to London's status as a leader on the world stage, many ordinary residents are being pushed to, or beyond, its fringes.

The keynote speaker at MIPIM was, of course, Johnson himself, who joked that its acronym stood for "Men in property in the Mediterranean," or "Meet me in the pool in a minute." It actually stands for "Le marché international des professionnels de l'immobilier" (the international marketplace for property professionals) — but Johnson's assessment drew a chorus of knowing laughs.

At £500 ($806) a ticket, it represented pretty good value for a lot of foreign investors looking to sink their capital into the reliable UK housing market, as well as for leaders of London borough councils — such as Lambeth's Lib Peck — who see working with developers as the only way to meet the demand for affordable housing.

As Anita Chakraborty recenty wrote in The Guardian, many councils are all but broke and feel that selling off assets is the only way to generate revenue. The use of London housing as a "global reserve currency" for the rich, and the fact that labor follows capital, means that wages are not rising nearly as fast as the cost of living in London. But Johnson seemed more than pleased to play host to the foreign elite, reportedly telling conference attendees: "I don't want to expel any oligarchs. Their cranes are sprouting all across the city, and it's marvelous." The fact that these cranes are building luxury flats which could lie empty, rather than social housing, doesn't seem to trouble the mayor.

It wasn't very surprising, then, that a hundred or so of London's most diehard housing activists saw the event as their chance to shame the speculators and tycoons who they believe are socially segregating the capital. If the developers barely understand what it's like to be poor in the city, a recent Times article by a self-confessed BWAG (Banker's Wives and Girlfriends) brought home how out of touch the wealthy are with everyday economic reality:

"The international super-rich, whose favorite topic of conversation is property, collect houses like a Monopoly game, buying the most expensive houses possible in the most expensive postcodes… It is absurd for me to see my friends, in families with two incomes from big City banks of £500,000, unable to buy a property in central London. These are people who have lived in the Alpha Territory for the past ten years and have moved away to live close to a good state school, because they can no longer afford the fees at private schools."

While this may not increase empathy for the rich much, it may explain the shock and anger displayed by the MIPIM delegates when confronted by a horde of braying lefties shouting "Shame on you!" in their faces as they tried to enter the building. "I work for the NHS, mate!" shouted one delegate, as if the presence of National Health Service staff mingling with property developers was something to be grateful for, rather than troubled by. One protester, Mark, calmly detailed how he had just been assaulted to a policewoman taking his statement.

"I was standing on the public highway asking delegates from the MIPIM conference why they were here. A very aggravated, red-faced man took exception to this question and struck me in the mouth," he told VICE News. Unfortunately for the short-tempered property mogul, he was then arrested and carted off to the police station.

The organizers of the conference insist it is not about using London as a Monopoly board, as protesters claim. In response to a letter criticising MIPIM in the Guardian, Peter Rhodes of Reed Midem, which runs the event, frothed that the picture painted by critics of MIPIM "is not one which people working to regenerate Britain's cities and towns would recognise" because they "contributed to the urban renaissance across the UK."

Private companies need to make profits, and social housing is not profitable in the short term. But for councils with no council houses left to house people in, it's even more costly to pay for people to stay in guesthouses. This has pushed councils such as Enfield in north London to create a fund to bulk buy auctioned properties to create new social housing. Some housing bodies are even exporting tenants to Hull, Grimsby and other towns outside of London. It's not much better for private renters either, who are pretty much at the mercy of their landlords' whims and ever-rising market rates.

Jag Bhatia, a former community organizer who now helps people in the rental sector facing difficulties with unethical landlords, said she was supporting the protest because so many families were being forced out of the capital.

"Because of the rise in rents and the benefits cap, people who are privately renting can't afford to live in London anymore, which affects their jobs and the schools their children go to," she told VICE News. "They're told to move out to areas which are cheaper, which means moving to areas where they have no networks, no family. Basically, this is amounting to the social cleansing of London."

Johnson made only the briefest of appearances outside the venue, slipping out to be interviewed at a side gate. Protesters swiftly arrived to remind him of their views and, before long, he was gone.

Buoyed by the excitement of swearing at the mayor of London, the protesters gathered around a makeshift house made from "To Let" signs, which was quickly surrounded by police. The demonstrators didn't give up that easily, however, and later returned to the main entrance, where they succeeded in causing enough mayhem to force the police to close the shutters.

Critics say events such as MIPIM are a reflection of how much social inequality has grown, as public assets are sold to private companies and London fast becomes an exclusive playground for the super rich.

Meanwhile the public's anger at the effects of the housing crisis continues to grow. For the Radical Housing Network activists, it was on to a counter-conference and an action to hand out spoof Evening Standards about the housing crisis.

40k spoof editions of the Evening Standard have been handed out in London this evening by the Radical Housing Network — HeardinLondon (@HeardinLondon)October 17, 2014

Up for sale at MIPIM isn't just council land, however — state healthcare facilities are also getting in on the act. Imperial College NHS Trust is flogging off huge portions of the land on three of its hospitals. One workshop at the event was called "Exploring Healthcare: Opportunities for the Property Industry."

John Lubbock is an activist and a former community organizer. Follow him on Twitter:@jwsal