Snooty City

Can we now say that money is breaking the city even as the veneer of Versace apartments with poor doors and homes with car lifts glosses over these realities?

In a recent Agony Uncle tirade the FT’s columnist David Tang lamented the kind of service now offered at the most lavish hotels and restaurants. In tandem with the increasing numbers of super wealthy clients hotel staff, he suggested, felt able to treat all but the richest with disdain as they fawned over these arrogant and rude clients. There is more to this vignette than first meets the eye. Cities like London are being made for the whims of money and the power that it bestows: Politicians fawn over the largesse of tax-paying high net worth individuals as though the city should be grateful, developers chase the premiums they can derive from designer interiors and lavish features while construction for affordable (don’t even dare whisper the prospect of public housing!) is almost non-existent.

In many ways these changes have occurred because the UK wealthy have been joined to all intents and purposes by a huge wave of international money and rich people seeking to invest or live in the city. The uprating of spaces and services in pursuit of this wealth thus damages and displaces the ability of the city to be a place for all people in which essential public services and spaces should be retained and paid for from the public purse. A great change has thus occurred which doesn’t simply take us back to an Edwardian era of massive dynastic wealth and leisured elites but a city the logic of which is a new and diverse set of elites who are often not in and perhaps not for the city. Like HSBC of late the risk of chasing this money is that another cultural hotspot does it better or cheaper in future or offers greater incentives to mobile capital and footloose investors. However, the real damper on this possibility is that many of the wealthy do not see London as a substitutable space – it has an almost unparalleled social calendar, cultural infrastructure, personal and financial service sectors. To live there, part or full-time, does not in any case mean that other places and spaces cannot be accessed when fancy takes hold.

In the background to this the state of national and urban politics is fragmented or supportive of these changes. What will happen to a city so beholden to its financial services? What if construction were starved of financial oxygen despite building expensive boxes that few will spend any time in? Why can’t a more inclusive social politics be built around the needs of the absolute majority of urban residents who are not served and indeed excluded by these changes within mainstream political life? Is the underlying reality of these changes the result of a political system in debt or thrall to the logic of money, despite the negative consequences for so many residents? The butler class of politicians appears to subconsciously react to the needs of a growing, energy hungry and wealthy transnational group who flow like mercury in search of financial vehicles that will serve them best and to countries to which they owe no real allegiance or patrician interest. Can we now say that money is breaking the city even as the veneer of Versace apartments with poor doors and homes with car lifts glosses over these realities?

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