Boris’s Buddies

“The contemporary super-rich have little in the way of roots or connection, and therefore little sense of obligation”

UK Politics Whittle's London
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”.

That’s funny. Doubtless they also need personal shoppers, nannies, pedicurists and of course lots and lots of new restaurants. Everything, indeed, that a five-star resort should offer the discerning international traveller. Those of us further down the food chain should be grateful, boastful indeed, that we are the beneficiaries of their largesse. But cities are not resorts. They have a past, present and hopefully a future. They are more, much more, than just their economies. Billionaires are welcome as part of the scene, but frankly I would be more concerned by the departure of one of the Tower’s ravens than by one of them.

And the fact is that most of us don’t even really know who they are. London’s super-rich-Russian, Chinese, American, Middle Eastern and others — are not, for the most part, organically grown. Their existence here is without question testament to the rude health of the capital as a money-making machine. They like to do deals here, to litigate here, and their partners drag them here to settle divorces, according to Forbes. The diversity of cuisine and culture on offer is also an attraction, as, strangely, is our “glamorous and stable” royal family.

But this is all about expediency. The contemporary super-rich have little in the way of roots or connection, and therefore surely little sense of obligation. Take culture: the Vanderbilts and the Sainsburys were giving something back when they left their mark indelibly on their cities’ buildings. Given the ubiquity of mega-wealth, shouldn’t London be experiencing a Mycenaean age of philanthropy? If it is, then they’re keeping quiet about it. I’ve yet to come across the Abramovich Wing of anything.

In his interview Boris at least admitted that the presence of the super-rich had had the paradoxical effect of making it hard for the rest of us to even hope of buying property in our city. The interesting thing though is that they’ve managed to do this seemingly in absentia. Parts of upmarket West London now sometimes seem very empty. I recently walked past the super-deluxe apartment block built by the Candy brothers which now dominates the heart of Knightsbridge. It has, apparently, full occupancy. Yet there was little sign of life. The upper reaches of London life have been hollowed out as effectively as the foundations of many of the city’s houses.