The poverty of urban research: London’s super-rich

The Shard

The Shard

Space matters, as geographers often like to say to sociologists – it also matters to the very wealthy who are overwhelmingly concentrated around the social asset-rich spaces of London’s super-prime property markets. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last few years this is an issue that is exercising rather a lot of people. What kind of a city has London become and who is it for? The project that I am co-leading with Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths) is focused on trying to understand the changes that the city has experienced alongside the massive increases in wealth, both from international and ‘local’ sources. Instead of looking down, as has often been criticised in sociological research, we are trying to look-up and understand the property markets, neighbourhoods, social circuits and wider impacts of these groups on the city.

For the super-rich and the merely very wealthy London works – it has relatively low levels of property taxation, unrivalled cultural and leisure circuits, sits astride the time line and is a relatively safe city, both to live and do business. But there is a much broader series of political questions that lurks in the background here – austerity, welfare cuts, stagnating housing supply, gentrification, estate demolitions and the general sense that London works for capital rather than its citizens. If anything we feel that this makes studying the rich a more urgent problematic – the displacement of low-income households in the city is by no means disconnected from the rising fortunes and investments of off-shore investors and to the insulated political lives of those making the decision to cut welfare and housing programmes. As we move into the research we are learning much more about how and why the wealthy are choosing London, as a place to live or as a place to park money for a time. Much of London’s gain has been generated by the chaos of other regions globally, or the relative intrusiveness of the state in other countries.

The social splitting-off of super-affluence represents one of the foremost challenges for applied social science. Fundamentally this relates to the lag between models of society, power and civic life and the growth, dynamics and effects of super-affluence that have not tended to be captured through these lenses. In a city like London it is clear that there are those investing in, but rarely living in, the city, but there are also many very wealthy people who seek to be in the city. What do these types of engagement and non/elective belonging imply for politics and fiscal policies?

Gaining contact and learning more is fraught with difficulty, one of the reasons ‘studying-up’ , though laudable, is so difficult in the first place. The very rich present us with difficulties precisely because they tend to challenge the ability of a public sociology to locate, understand and report on them.  In many cases the very possibility of connection with such groups has evaporated, and the state already acknowledges this. In the past the traditional imperatives of research meant that work on elite was difficult – secretaries, various defensive and other power relationships kept social investigators at bay.  But, more recently, services like the Australian Bureau of Statistics and US statistical authorities have expressed concern at what is effectively the growing myopia of the state to super rich citizens whose residential arrangements, such as gated communities, prevent their basic profiling. Instead of concern with unemployed and young males, the perennial problem group for survey researchers, we need to acknowledge the increasing opacity of affluent life – from the state and from public understandings of the full range of social life. The state sees unevenly, and appears to be predisposed to support most those it sees least.

London’s burgeoning high rise landscape appears to be driven by underground pipelines of capital flowing into the city from across the globe. London’s luck brings more luck, the longest run of a nationally-sanctioned pyramiding scheme in the form of its property market. Perhaps worst of all the city of Lanchester’s Capital is a heartless space, money talks and politicians listen. Hostility to migrants but not migrating money, to new homes but not to empty homes speak of a callous money-logic that trumps attempts at stating the case for the city as a place for communities, social life and nurturing spaces. How very old-fashioned and cringe-worthy even to suggest such things.

IMG_6096

One Hyde Park, ultra prime market residences.

Any basic commitment to an equitable social and economic agenda should feel obliged to encompass these changes and move beyond speculation to learn more about the extent, lifestyles, attitudes and daily life of the very wealthy. Debates about taxation, house-building, civic engagement and urban politics cannot proceed without such insights. This is not to suggest that with knowledge might come political action or condemnation, but that we cannot achieve commitments to social equity and more just cities without it.

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