It’s funny how the news tends to cannibalise itself. This week it took spiralling events in Ukraine for the inhabitants of London to question the merits of the city they call home. The British reaction to Russian aggression in Crimea came under fire from author and frequent Monocle contributor Ben Judah. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Judah deplored the way the political class has put money over ethics in refusing to be as strong-worded as the Americans in dealing with Moscow.
Putin knows, attests Judah, that with the money of the oligarchs, Russia virtually owns the British. And the anti-foreign-billionaire-resident backlash has been in full swing in London for some time. Non-doms – non-domicile residents – have been the subject of a blight-versus-blessing debate but this has rarely formed part of a proper quality-of-life argument.
This week, however, the media seems to have cottoned on. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian rallied and pointed out how even upper-end earners are now unable to afford to buy (or rent) housing in huge tracts of the London’s centre and inner suburbs. Equally contentious is a series airing on the BBC that is questioning London’s preponderance, both cultural and economic, over the rest of the country. Mind The Gap points to the presence of foreign investment as the defining characteristic of success when ranking cities.
Like so many people, my relationship with London is a complicated one. A wealth of opportunities and unbeatable dynamism on the one hand; the drabness of a work-mad city where free time and heart-warming urban charm is hard to come by on the other. The struggle and inconvenience of the city is almost constantly replaced with some fad or distraction; London is good at throwing up illusions.
But how does the presence of a few oligarchs with a few billion roubles of cash to splash have any effect on us from day to day? You might say that the collected wealth that has made London the richest city in Europe – mainly thanks to foreign investment – has also spawned and attracted a creative and media class that is extremely healthy. However, many are now saying the exact opposite. At what point does a neighbourhood or entire city become unaffordable?
Near where I live in Hackney, rumour has it that the famous gasometers, intricate Victorian structures that grace the Broadway Market neighbourhood, are due to be torn down to make way for luxury apartments. Gentrification always has its detractors. But is this even gentrification when much of the modern-day gentry is being priced out? In Hackney you cannot help but feel that development seems to be fuelled by an unquenchable thirst for higher yield and returns that has nothing to do with the community. It is alien.
This week it has taken British foreign policy (or the lack of it) toward Russia to spark a debate that has as much to do with house prices and neighbourhoods as it has with sanctions and military action. Maybe it’s about time.
David Plaisant is an associate producer for Monocle 24.