Features

Welcome to Big Venice: How London became a tourist-trap city

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

Queuing to gain admittance to the pavement of Westminster Bridge on a ferociously hot Sunday afternoon recently, I found myself trapped. Pinioned by a road to one side, a stall selling models of Big Ben and snow-dome Buckingham Palaces to the other, and bordered by the great bronze statue of Boudicca, I was caught in a corralled mass of tourists and going nowhere fast. It occurred to me that the last time I experienced such a peculiar blend of urban misery was in Venice. This might have been the Rialto in August.

But it wasn’t the Grand Canal that we were crossing, it was the Thames, and it started me thinking about the similarities of life in London and Venice. And I don’t just mean being photographed occasionally by a tourist as if you were one of those rarefied Venetian gondoliers. It’s also the scary realisation that our city is being bought up — brick by brick — by rich foreigners, mostly representatives of a new pan-national global plutocracy. As a result, the average Brit looks up at the stuccoed terraces of Notting Hill or South Ken like a tramp pressing his nose against the glass of the Ivy.

According to Savills, the upmarket estate agent, the people buying up the nice bits of central London are mainly foreigners. Take what it calls ‘Prime Central London’: a severely desirable portion of land stretching from Chelsea in the south to St John’s Wood in the north, Notting Hill to the west and Mayfair to the east. In this area, six out ten property sales were made to buyers from overseas in 2011-12. Of these, 37 per cent were bought as a holiday home, meaning that one in five properties is now empty most of the time. The figures are even higher with new-build properties. Another estate agent, Knight Frank, says foreign buyers bought 73 per cent of new homes last year. Lots of these are offered to overseas -buyers first.

And don’t imagine it’s just the centre of town either — no borough is safe. Foreign property ownership is rising across the whole of London and entering cheaper market segments. At a conservative estimate, foreigners have spent £37 billion on top London property since 2006.

Partly as a result of this spree, London has three local authorities with the highest ratios of second homes in the UK. One in four households in the City of London is a second home, compared with one in ten in Kensington and Chelsea, and one in 20 in Westminster.


And here’s the danger for our great capital, the real peril of becoming a Venice: all those unlived-in houses kill the soul of a city.

I took a walk into Mayfair — prime -foreign-ownership territory — to take the city’s pulse. On Curzon Street I popped into Caffè Nero and asked the barista if they had any proper locals. He thought for a second. ‘I know one or two… I reckon there’s about ten,’ he said.

Over the road an estate agent has a window dedicated to property in Monaco, with prices starting at €4.2 million. Next door the beauty parlour is advertising an ‘eyelash perm’ for £45. Over the road a bookshop with a blue plaque announces that Nancy Mitford ‘worked here’ from 1942 to 1945. Not any more, she doesn’t.

On Chesterfield Street, with the exception of the Bahamas High Commission, the lights are generally out. Wooden shutters darken the ground floor windows of a house once home to the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. At No. 4, Sir Anthony Eden’s old pad looks empty, as does its neighbours. The top-hatted doorman outside Aspinalls who has been working in the area for 30 years says the foreign owners spend a lot of time abroad.

I overhear a woman with an American accent and ask her if she’s a local. She is, she said, in London for her husband’s job. ‘I love it here so much.’

I popped into The Grapes on Shepherd’s Market for some refreshment. Does the pub have any proper locals? ‘It’s easy to work that one out,’ the landlord said, ‘because weekends are our quietest time. Still, we do better than some, they just close at weekends.’ Back on Curzon Street, the only lights I see are on the taxis — zooming back and forth looking for fares.

I put the London/Venice theory to Mark Field, the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, and he agreed, but only on the grounds that ‘it’s the sheer power of London as a city state, like Venice was before the unification of Italy’.

He did admit that power and wealth make for inequality. ‘Central London has always been polarised between the very wealthy and the very poor and that polarisation is spreading throughout greater London. It’s not just an issue for a handful of MPs, but all 73 London constituencies.’

So what do we do? Accept the fact that our city is becoming a theme park for tourists and the global rich who want somewhere to work, rest, invest and play? Do we just take the money, flog our heritage, and move out? What happens to our authentic city, the cultural and political dynamo at the heart of our beating national enterprise? Shouldn’t we at least talk about this, before we let it happen?

I don’t want to be the last gondolier. Do you?

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free


Show comments
  • mikewaller

    It is only what wealthy South-Easterners and others having been doing to the rest of the country in terms of second homes for years. It really is a case of biter bit. At least in this instance the money thus generated in London contributes in a big way to kind of transfer of wealth via taxation Boris is always banging on about. What really needs to be done is to make designating a property as a second home a change of use needing official approval, the granting of which will be conditional upon making a significant contribution to the building of a modest starter home in the same general area.

    • chui1996

      No. That’s just more taxation..

  • george

    Great article. Gong well sounded. It’s a problem. But the worse problem is that Britain’s government is so anti-capitalist and pro-taxation — in a word, socialist — that few natives can afford the choice places to live. And then there are the foreigners neither rich nor sympathetic in any way to our culture….

    • mikewaller

      Part of our culture is a general aversion to our fellow citizens not having to go without the essentials of life such as reasonable housing and health care. If that means watered down socialism, so be it. However, I should prefer to think that it stems from a common sense of decency. Certainly I prefer it to the pro-capitalism, anti-taxation model that obtains in the USA.

      • george

        Communism and its warmed-over versions don’t work: see the 20th century.

        More people have been helped by a free market society — with better living standards as a result — than by any other system, anywhere in the world, at any other time. Open your eyes, man.

        • pdhan

          It’s odd the number of people believing that the choice is either between a free market system and communism. Obviously nobody in their right mind argues for communism, they do however argue for wealth redistribution within a capitalist framework as this is what genuinely helps the largest amount of people.

          • george

            ‘Wealth redistribution’ is just stealing from A to give B what B thinks B deserves. What if A disagrees?

          • pdhan

            then he gets fined/goes to prison for tax evasion. obviously.

          • george

            Don’t be daft. Wealth ‘redistribution’ is institutionalized robbery, and it’s amazing that those demanding the loot think they have morality on their side. It’s also a great way to keep everyone in miserable equality, since socialism puts an arbitrary cap on what people may have (no matter how much they are willing to strive for it).

            I see the homes of some Lefties and the places that they think are good enough for us to live, the conditions that are good enough — except that I myself am capable of appreciating so much more, and that’s what I’ve struggled and sacrificed for. I don’t want a boring bungalow in a samey neighbourhood with gov’t acting like Big Brother, monitoring my trash and my electricity, etc. Telling me how to vote, how to think (socialism tends to be totalizing: another huge defect of it). I want beauty around me. Who are the socialists to tell me I shouldn’t have it?

          • tolpuddle1

            Unless you collect your own rain water, generate your own electricity and dispose (in a responsible way) of your own sewage and refuse, you need the help of the State or a company (usually a very greedy monopoly) acting on the State’s behalf.

            If you want Beauty, blah di blah, you need considerable money to be able to afford it – this comes from other people who are prepared (or perhaps compelled) to buy the goods and services you offer to sell them. As for your supposedly being a heroic Striver, “struggling and sacrificing”, I reserve my admiration for those who really do this – the lads working on the dust carts or down the sewers for poor wages, the carers looking after sick or elderly relatives for free, the segment of nurses or teachers who are still dedicated.

            Many taxes – notably VAT, business rates and council tax – weigh more heavily (both directly and indirectly) upon the poor and I notice that you don’t denounce THIS sort of wealth re-distribution. Your belief that Capitalism is more honest (!!!) than any alternative is beyond absurd.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Teachers do not struggle and sacrifice. They are well paid with nice long holidays and good pensions. And do you honestly admire the dustmen? I mean honestly.

          • george

            I would have replied to Toddlepiddle, FP, but he’s the sort of chap that would lay his cape down on a puddle for Che Guevara, so it’s not worth the candle or whatever you Brits say. Amazing that he thinks he knows who sacrifices, and who does not, and what sacrifice by whom is worth what payoff…. I want a beautiful house with architectural merit in a beautiful landscape, and I’m somewhere around the lower-middle respectable working class, hanging on by my nails, and I’ve fought for that vision all my life….

          • tolpuddle1

            I do indeed admire dustmen – I’m always amazed by their toughness and stoical good humour while performing very unpleasant and difficult work.

            I’m also extremely grateful to them, as we should all be – they’re about all that stands between us and a return of bubonic plague.

          • george

            In America we do not always require dustmen, capitalism and private enterprise having devised a garbage truck that has an arm which lifts, empties, and lowers wheelie bins in a jiffy.

            I admire the guys that designed the truck and built it, myself.

          • tolpuddle1

            Capitalism and its admirers have indeed designed technologies that have already thrown millions of people out of work and in many cases onto the scrapheap (since not everyone is a wonderful human being like yourself, equipped to bounce back from redundancy like rubber balls). It is this, together with globalization, that has broken the traditional working class of countries like UK and USA, to the (very short-sighted) delight of Western Rightists.

            Why short-sighted ? Because:

            1) “Milton Friedman isn’t much use against the Taliban”

            2) One of the reasons Capitalism will perish and vanish, is that no sane person is prepared to die for it; vast numbers of people eagerly declare their belief in Capitalism, none will choose to experience Martyrdom on its behalf. And in an increasingly unstable world where the West no longer calls the shots, Capitalism will certainly need defenders.
            3) The servicemen who died for the Allied cause in World War II (the “Anti-Fascist Coalition” with Stalin) were mainly intent on building a better world, in the 1940’s collectivist mould, rather than old-fashioned patriots. They fought either under FDR’s centre-left New Deal government or under Churchill’s (half of whose cabinet members were Socialists).
            After Mrs Thatcher, the UK is a divided and embittered nation, where multifarious social and ethnic groups (the mutual snarling fairly audible beneath the frosty politeness) wage a Cold War which may well one day turn Hot. The US, despite the noisy flag-waving by fake patriots (many in any case too obese to fight for their country) looks similar to me and may well collapse under the building pressures – after all, the SU did, why not the US ? The British Army is desperately short of recruits and will probably have to re-introduce the Press Gang, since very few Brits are prepared to suffer even a moments’ discomfort for the Capitalist dunghill that the UK now is. The USA is in much the same position, reliant on Underclass recruits who have joined up solely for the Freebies and the hope of a University education
            4) To have Armed Forces you need tough and conscientious working-class men; geeks, lawyers, entrepreneurs, realtors, Wall Street gamblers etc, somehow will not do. (And don’t imagine that 2nd generation Mexicans or Chinese will die on the enemy guns for the sake of the Stars and Stripes). Having destroyed your working-class, you now find that you and your nation are defenceless – as a Scottish woman remarked when the Highlanders were driven out to make way for sheep-farming: “You have shown that you prefer sheep to men; so let the sheep die for you!”

            Regarding your own part in all this: as all religions include a version of the Golden Rule (“Do under others as you would have them do unto you”, you are presumably not a religious man (surely not one of the many American Imbeciles who believe that “God Loves a Wiinner” and that contrary to the Bible, He judges people on their wealth and success, even though Christ on the Cross is the Cosmic destitute, the ultimate loser). Since you are apparently either a well-intentioned lunatic who believes the absurd doctrine that Technology is Progress, or someone eager to throw dustmen out of work to swell your ego and/or financial reserves, clearly if God does exist you have a problem and need to change tack rather urgently (requesting God’s mercy), since like the rest of us you will be judged on your compassion (or lack of it) and on the Golden Rule.

          • Fergus Pickering

            You mean you want to live in the country in green wellies. By the way, are you an American? Over here we speak of rubbish, not trash. I thought I’d let you know so that you can blend in better..

          • george

            I speak of rubbish when it’s rubbish, and trash when it’s trash. Except when it’s garbage. Hope I’ve cleared that up.

          • Fergus Pickering

            No George, you haven’t. Are you an American? I won’t hate you fr ever if you are. There are lots of you here, though usually of the wet liberal persuasion. But are you? American, I mean, not wet liberal, which you clearly aren’t.

          • george

            I’m bi-national, FP. English by birth and upbringing; American by marriage and naturalization. There: I’m out of the closet!

          • pdhan

            Are you really trying to have that old “tax is robbery” discussion here? Sorry but that’s just a bit juvenile. At uni there used to be one extremist camp shouting “tax is theft” and the other replying “property is theft”, the first being blind to what makes society work and the second ignoring the rights of the individual. Both being equally daft. Pragmatism and compromise works, get used to it.

          • george

            If you’re interested in what works, why the hell would you be interested in socialism?

          • Fergus Pickering

            But we already have wealth redistribution. Poor people get handouts from the state i.e. richer taxpayers. You mean you want more of this. OK perhaps, but say what you mean.

        • tolpuddle1

          You argue like the Lefties who support mass-immigration; “If you don’t want unlimited immigration, you’re a racist and a BNP supporter.” But what about controlled, moderate migration ?

          Similarly, you argue that anyone who opposes rip-roaring, sink-or-swim ultra-capitalism is a benighted Communist, who wants everyone to go around in a Chairman Mao boiler suit.

          But we’re not – we just want a stable and moderate society. Most people, though perhaps not you, don’t want a cut-throat society, such as we now have in Britain. Thatcher took Britain much further than most – even of her own voters – wanted to go.

          There had better be an alternative to Capitalism – it only survived in 2008 because of largesse from taxpayers, it self-destructs if unregulated (read Joseph Schumpeter), it runs contrary to most people’s desire for security for themselves and their children (even Greenspan says so), it breeds unscrupulous, hedonistic, decadent (and doomed) societies (look around today’s Britain) and the older capitalist countries, mainly us and the USA, are going inexorably south, whatever their right-wing politicos may proclaim or scheme to the contrary.

          • george

            More people were killed in the name of social equality — in one century, the 20th — than in the name of any other cause in history.

            That people can still trumpet socialism as a way of life, without any sense of shame or embarrassment, is appalling.

          • Centrist

            Perhaps one of the most balanced and level comments I have ever seen on any website right or left in recent times. Well done Sir / Madam.

          • george

            Another thing I forgot to mention: Lefties like you always blame self-government (democracy) and free enterprise (capitalism) for the faults that mainly lie at Leftism’s door — the Left sticks the boot in, freedom is wounded, and then the Left points and says: ‘see how you fail!’

            Democrats in Congress, and Obama and the Clintons in the White House, have done more to make America ‘go south’ than anything classical liberals, Republicans, and conservatives have done.

            Your post is Exhibit A of this behaviour.

        • mikewaller

          Read your economic history books; unfettered capitalism is inherently unstable. The capitalists don’t like the insecurity and generally opt for cartels, price fixing and predatory pricing whilst the workforce is drawn to self-protective combination and/or anarchy. Avoiding the former calls for strong State intervention in the form of anti-trust legislation whilst the latter seems best controlled by limited forms of wealth redistribution.

          Even so, the whole thing is still a work in progress. For the West it has been hugely successful during a period when their economies had a near monopoly of sophisticated production technologies. With that era now fading into history, Lord knows what will happen. There is however one thing of which I am sure: as life in the First World gets harder and harder democracy and laissez faire capitalism are going to be come very uneasy bedfellows.

          • george

            Look, you either like freedom or you don’t. Communism kills — either the soul or the body or both.

          • mikewaller

            I guess from your use of the term “freedom” in this context that your are an American. The impression we get over here is that when ever the argument gets challenging many Americans just chuck in the word “freedom” in the mistaken belief that the word itself is the answer to everything. Commonsense tells you that it very rarely is. Of course freedom is wonderful – I would hate to live in a country in which we would be frightened to have this exchange; but it was a very sensible American – Oliver Wendell Holmes – who made the telling point that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

            What you have to do is become very brave and face up to each argument – in this case the need somehow to regulate over-mighty capitalists who can control the market – rather than just trotting out the mantra “freedom”.

          • george

            You obviously have no gratitude or respect for freedom, which is a shame.

            And do not forget, ‘the golden sheath of pity conceals the dagger of envy’, which motivates a great majority of Leftists.

  • post_x_it

    It’s not quite clear what a lot of these statistics really mean, and it’s not easy to work out when no proper references are provided.
    For example, what is the definition of a “foreign buyer”? Is it based on citizenship? Tax domicile? Country of main residence?
    I’ve been in London for 15 years, originally from another European country. I live and work here full time, pay my taxes here; my family, friends, assets and commitments are here. I consider myself a regular Londoner. The only thing I haven’t done is change my citizenship.
    Last year I bought a flat. Am I a “foreign buyer” on account of my passport?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Yes of course you are. Get a British passport. Why haven’t you got one already? Is being British not good enough for you? Haven’t you heard that the w*gs begin at Calais?.

      • post_x_it

        Just trying to make the point that not every “foreign buyer” is an absentee owner, as the article seems to suggest.

  • tolpuddle1

    London is one of global Capitalism’s main poster boys. No wonder it’s such a Hell, and getting worse. Hell is where Money rules.

    • george

      Good to hear the Marxist-Leninist-Castroan opinion. Thanks so much for sharing.

      • tolpuddle1

        If you imagine I’m a Marxist-Leninist-Castroist-North Korean, get real and stop living in a fantasy-world where the only choices are global capitalism and state socialism.

        Those murdered by Communism (hardly by Attlee socialism) died in the party’s pursuit of a utopia called The Classless Society, not in the name of moderate social equality. You might as well claim that every patriotic Tory is a Nazi, since the Nazis were undeniably German patriots.

  • fishspouse

    You wanted laissez-faire Capitalism; you got it.
    This is Capitalism’s end-game and Britain lost.
    Suck it up.

Close