Hugo Rifkind

Why are we turning London into Dubai?

6 March 2014

3:00 PM

6 March 2014

3:00 PM

If you’ve ever wondered what it will look like when we colonise Mars, the answer is ‘Dubai’. I was there the other week. Bloody hell, what a place. You sit there on your unabashedly fake beach on your un-abashedly fake island, perhaps basking in the shade of a palm tree that plainly wasn’t there a decade ago, because this used to be the sea. And across the bay, which is of course a fake bay, you can see skyscrapers. Pleasure zone, business zone, shopping zone. You half expect to find Richard O’Brien prancing around in a leopardskin top hat, urging you to collect crystals.

It’s a great place for a holiday, for all its glaring moral flaws, but I don’t think you’d want to live there. And indeed hardly anybody truly does. I think I saw a grand total of two Emiratis over my whole trip, decked out in their dishdashes and keffiyehs and terribly expensive sunglasses in a restaurant in a shopping centre. They make up about one sixth of the population, I gather. Everybody else is transient, even if they’re there for years.

The place has bustle, certainly, and anywhere that isn’t a building site already has a building on it. But you look at the people and you look at the buildings, and one thing becomes immediately apparent. Which is that there aren’t nearly enough of the former for the latter. Quite a lot of the time, you realise, the only people who can possibly be living in the buildings there already are the people who are building the buildings that there, as yet, aren’t.

And yet Dubai’s property market is booming. Things famously went horribly wrong a few years ago, and various vast prestigious projects (such as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world) stood unwanted for months. But that’s all in the past. Last year, prices rose by 40 per cent. At least 25,000 new properties are bought each year. A few will be lived in, and more will be visited or rented out. Many, though, will just sit there, being owned. Being a safe — or at least, safer — place for somebody from somewhere worse to park their cash. Which sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Because that’s what is happening in London, too.

Over a decade ago I distantly knew a man with a house in a prestigious bit of north London which just stood there empty for years. It was such a weird thing to do that I wrote it into a novel (Overexposure, Canongate, ‘Laugh out loud’ — the Times) and filled it with swingers. These days, it’s not so strange. Apparently there are 72,457 such properties in the capital. In Knightsbridge and Belgravia, as a result, there are 11 per cent fewer voters than in 2002. We are being hollowed out. We’re becoming a bank.

It’s not the thought of any Billionaire’s Row that bothers me. I mean, you know, weird people live there in terror behind gates, or they don’t. What do I give a damn? No, it’s everywhere else. It’s the thought of a middling Saudi billionaire who wants to keep a few million safe, so buys half of my suburban street. It’s the thought of depopulated apartment blocks in Farringdon or Clerkenwell or Hackney, with echoing corridors and unlit windows and nobody bloody there. I mean, what the hell are we doing? Who is flying this aeroplane? Is anyone?

I don’t like the mob urge that wants to tell other people what to do with their property. Not even if those properties are empty, and those people are in Doha or Belarus. But I like even less the thought of my city as a gusty necropolis, dotted with monuments to what most people here haven’t got.

Yes, they’ve done well in the UAE, forging a thriving — albeit weird — metropolis out of a bit of desert coast with nothing at all going for it. Even so, take a walk along the semi-populated fronds of those artificial palm peninsulas one day, and imagine how much of its tiny, withered soul that place would give, still, to become the sort of thrilling, pulsating heartbeat of the globe itself that London remains. And yet here we are, being London already, and seemingly hellbent on turning ourselves into Dubai. We must have lost our minds.

One-track minds

Visiting Russia at the height of the Jimmy Savile explosion, I was asked by a local student asked why so much British news was about paedophiles. Obviously Savile was a rare sort of monster, but I didn’t really know how to answer him. In fact, I still don’t.

There’s a lot to criticise about the beliefs of Harman, Dromey, Hewitt et al at the National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1970s. Transparently, though, when some of them talked about lowering the age of consent, they were thinking of children shagging children, or at a push teenagers shagging children, not 42-year-old men in raincoats shagging children. Certainly, it could have facilitated that, and they were naive not to have realised. But the bulk of the criticism today seems to be based on the premise that the lurking risk of paedophiles simply wasn’t at the forefront of their minds.

Because it ought to be, always. Wake up. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Get dressed. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Take the bus. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Russia has invaded Crimea. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Incessantly. As though it should be a sin, even for a moment, to think about anything else. How weird we’ve become.

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