Changing London 3



The former prime minister of Qatar, whose family owns a chunk of the grotesque bullet-proof ‘One Hyde Park’ apartment complex, and Harrods (which they’re welcome to) said he would retire to London rather than his homeland. For some, his decision is symbolic. London has become a playground for foreign fortunes – a land where you can spend vast amounts with discretion. What goes on in London stays in London.

Hence London’s current reputation as ‘Richistan’, the go-to location for oligarchs and dictators looking to bury their loot. It is no coincidence that Colonel Gadaffi chose to keep £40 billion of his assets tucked away here. At the consumer end, Chinese shoppers now account for 33% of all luxury goods sales in Britain, which encourages new high-end outlets to open daily. It’s a new world order, and I think rather an ugly one, because I don’t believe in trickle-down economics. I believe in unconditionally helping the people who are down to get up.

Here’s an example of how it’s meant to change urban life. The Google-isation of my local neighbourhood is occurring, as the new Google HQ gets ready to open a block away from me. It will transform the area in terms of business, But in terms of ordinary working lives it will make no difference, because Google and the other buildings surrounding it have been given their own new post-code – NC1 (North Central One), which acts as a virtual wall around the place, keeping the privileged in and the undesirables out. One hundred yards from the building are boarded-up shops and a run-down council estate where nothing is changing at all.

Meanwhile, a Chinese billionaire is planning to recreate the Crystal Palace – why on earth would he want to do that? It was built with a distinct purpose – to display the wealth and talent gathered from the corners of the Victorian empire, not to house an Abercrombie & Fitch. But it’s likely to be given the green light to ‘regenerate’ the area. I fail to see how more high-end retail outlets regenerate anything, if you don’t have the money to shop in them.

Perhaps I’m missing something in all of this. I’m moving in the wrong circles (I am the world’s worst networker. Most creatives are). Publicists are famous for holding ‘talkers’. These are events where they invite people who exist at the centre of a Venn diagram, who pass on news from one group to another. The three or four circles in which they run usually include media and money, plus a more specialised area, so a dream ‘talker’ would be, say, Tracy Emin, the rich media-friendly artist who can’t shut up. But who will the talkers cater to now? Who is the typical clued-up Londoner at the centre of things? Someone who buys a lot of clothes and eats out every night, at a guess.

If a city is defined not by its architecture but by its hopes and dreams and its people – then what is London becoming? There are still dreamers, of course – as the determination to build a green bridge across the Thames attests. But for every good idea there are a hundred blank glass boxes pushing their way around the planning rules. I long for a peep into the future I will not see, to know wether London has rediscovered its scale or entire lost its humanity to corporations.

7 comments on “Changing London 3”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    The “green bridge” looks very nice, but is it to be only the world’s longest and biggest “flower box”? Or would it also carry traffic? Or foot traffic?
    If open 24hrs a day? It looks like a nifty setting for murders or robberies.
    Bryant & May Up A Tree On The Bridge Above the Themes Murders. Since it isn’t built yet, it would make a nice SiFi entry in the series. Sort of H.D. Wells-ish.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I meant the Thames, of course, but 99% of this blog’s readers knew that. Now why did I type and “e”? Have to check with my left hand.

  3. admin says:

    It’s intended to carry foot traffic, Dan. It would make a great HG Wells-y setting. I set Paramount’s ‘War Of The Worlds’ video game there, at the Festival of Britain, and it worked fine.

  4. FabienneT says:

    Thank you for posting these fascinating “Changing London” blogs. I have left London now (can’t afford it as a freelancer!) but go back for gigs, theatre and art, etc. as I live in Southend – it’s not too far. It has changed sooo much (not in the good way) since I arrived in 1998…
    It infuriates me as well as fascinates me.
    Funnily enough, I am reading War of the Worlds now!

  5. glasgow1975 says:

    I only recently found out about a law in Australia (or possibly only Brisbane?) that allows ‘non doms’ to buy property (a lot of rich Asians now come to study in Australia living in property bought by mum & dad which is sold on after the student visa runs out) but they have to raise whatever they buy and build a completely new property. It seems insane, but must ensure a regular enough supply of new housing stock. Obviously I’m not advocating London does the same but surely something more could be done to get around the miniscule ‘social housing’ allowance these luxury developments get away with.

  6. glasgow1975 says:

    I was looking at the new Battersea Power Station plans . . .all high end apartments & offices with social housing largely being let off by an extension to the Tube

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I remember reading an item about New Delhi in which it was stated that the more money you have the closer you can live to the centre of the city where everyone works. Those in basic or entry level jobs can only afford to live well away from the centre and thus have transportation costs in addition to their housing. The rich could, but don’t, walk to work. I know that here people, including teachers and other low level professionals, are moving to Surrey, across the river from New Westminster, because they can’t afford Vancouver. We couldn’t afford where we live if we hadn’t bought our house over forty years ago.

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