The Wandsworth Con
(article by George Monbiot, from The Guardian 25.08.98)
The underhoused people of Wandsworth in south London know precisely what they want. When we, direct activists from The Land is Ours, were evicted two years ago from the great tract of derelict land beside Wandsworth Bridge, they continued the fight for affordable housing, a riverside park and a community centre. They organised a huge consultation exercise, and presented the unequivocal results to Wandsworth Borough Council.
But no one is obliged to listen to them. Wandsworth, one of the last parts of the country still under enemy occupation, is governed by a cabal of sociopathic grotesques, pursuing a venomous economic apartheid. The poor and vulnerable have already been zoned out of most parts of the borough, and the rich and heedless zoned in.
So Sir Norman Foster and Rialto Homes know that their proposal, presented last month, is likely to fall on fertile ground. Four gigantic apartment blocks, rising to 20 storeys, will be built along the riverfront, to house 740 luxury flats. Fifty-two of them will be three-bedroom penthouse suites, likely to sell for several million pounds each. There will be parking for nearly 1000 cars, and a moat will be built between the new homes and the crumbling ex-council estates on the other side of the road. There will be no affordable housing, no riverside park and no community centre. There will, however, be a new police station on the site: the owners of the penthouse suites won't have any trouble from the neighbours.
Local people are horrified but not surprised. Wandsworth's unitary development plan, which recommends that no structure above six storeys be built beside the Thames, has been flouted repeatedly, not least by the government's own adviser on urban regeneration, Lord Rogers, whose luxury Montevetro Tower, just down the river from the Land is Ours site, also rises to a supercilious 20 storeys.
But where, the impoverished people of Wandsworth keep asking, will the new buyers come from? The rise in housing demand, the government has repeatedly asserted, comes largely from single people seeking relatively low-cost homes. Yet, all over London and the South-East, new three-bedroom apartments and five-bedroom executive mansions are being built. How could there be enough buyers to go round?
I think I may have just stumbled upon the answer. While looking for something quite different last week, I came across a remarkable article in Gulf News, published in Dubai. It was a report from last year's "WorldWide Property and Investment Show", organised in Dubai by British agents. Among the exhibitors were some of Britain's most controversial luxury house-builders.
"Both UK expats and Arab nationals", the traders exulted, "are looking to spend anything from £70,000 for a small rural retreat to around £1 million for a smart central London address... [the] product appeals to the executive who already owns a UK property and is seeking a substantial second home". One of the most prominent exhibitors was Persimmon Homes, which, like Rialto, is building luxury cliffs on the Thames in Wandsworth. Its sales director made no attempt to diguise the nature of her business. "I am finding," she boasted, "all my serious enquiries here are from investors, not those requiring a home."
Among the non-homes she had sold in Dubai were apartments in the new estate Persimmon is building close to the Thames at Kingston. To ensure that the purchasers of its flats enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the river, Persimmon insisted that a row of poplar trees in Canbury Gardens, one of the best-loved parks in the borough, be felled. The council meekly complied, to the fury of local residents, who occupied the trees for four months last winter.
Dubai is not the only place in which our property companies have been selling the homes they have told us, again and again, have to be built to meet Britain's housing needs. A survey by London Residential Research reveals that, astonishingly, 50 per cent of all the new homes built in central and inner London in the first half of the last financial year were sold to buyers in the Far East. Foster and Rialto seem to know this: the third member of their consortium is a company from Singapore.
A few months ago, local authorities presented Hilary Armstrong, the housing minister, with proposals for punitive rates of council tax on second homes. She decided not to adopt them. Nothing, in other words, will be done to ensure that houses are built for living in, rather than for speculation. The Labour government, like Wandsworth's Conservative council, has chosen to side with greed and against need.