Boris Johnson with Lakshmi Mittal, pictured in 2013 (photo: Financial Times, via Flickr)
"Build upwards!" has always been the traditional developers' mantra when great cities get pushed for space. They generally have the likes of you and me in mind, I think, and assume that a city has workers who naturally would be residents too. But as the saying goes, the rich are different, the very rich are very different, and in recent years in London they have been heading in precisely the opposite direction.
So-called mega-basements — some featuring swimming pools, private cinemas, art galleries, gyms and in one case a "beauty room" — have been increasingly taking root under already obscenely expensive houses in the choicer parts of the capital. (Lakshmi Mittal's subterranean pool apparently required the same marble as was used for the building of the Taj Mahal.) Last year, Kensington and Chelsea council received 450 applications for multi-storey basements. They are deeply unpopular with all but the applicants. Quoted in The Times, the council's planning policy man Tim Coleridge said it is the "single greatest planning concern our residents have expressed to us in living memory".
In December the council finally won the ability to ban such multi-storey burrowing — a testament also perhaps to the power of the kind of influential and wealthy residents they have in that part of the world. Single-storey basements will still be OK, but with various restrictions now in place. The chances of burrowing so deep that you end up sharing the platform on the Piccadilly Line have now, thankfully, receded. If this comes as a blow to the human rights of the super-rich, then it's not something we in south-east London will worry too much about. Everyday life remains untroubled by the sprawling domestic arrangements of billionaires. Although, according to our mayor, they are people we should all be very proud of having around.
On one of his recent publicity trips to the US, Boris Johnson was asked on a radio show by the Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner what it was about London that made it the world's greatest city. "We have now in London 72 billionaires," he declared, adding in his typically colourful way that the capital "is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutan". That's quite a few more than Forbes magazine's recent estimate of around 45, which even so still gives New York more than a run for its money, and for the shiny new London, Manhattan remains the benchmark for everything. And of course there was the inevitable trickle-down effect, for, according to the mayor, these big beasts provide employment by "asking people to bring the car round to the front of the hotel".