London Landlords Have Ushered in a New Era of Feudalism

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by Sam Bright

29 April 2022

An image of the top of The Shard, London.
The Shard – the tallest freestanding structure in London – is owned by Qatar. Paul Hudson/Flickr

Feudalism, put simply, is a form of human servitude – a vassal provides labour and taxes in exchange for military protection, and the ‘right’ to live on (but not own) land possessed by a nobleman. While it was formally abolished in England in the 1660s, it has been going through a modern-day resurgence – namely in our capital city. 

London promises unbridled freedom – a never-ending tequila orgy fuelled by a vast army of people and job prospects. But this mirage is exposed at the end of every month, when we stare bleakly into the abyss of our bank accounts.

London is a dazzling canvas illuminated by a thousand different cultures and cuisines, seemingly locked in harmony through an affinity with progressive politics. But this idealised London is tainted by a devilish deal forged by the city with oligarchs and predatory landlords. In other words, the city is celebrated as a beacon of progress while holding a large proportion of its residents in feudal-esque subjugation, demanding that they work endlessly to feed the voracious appetite of their property patrons. 

In terms of housing, and much else besides, the capital is an outlier of extreme proportions. In 2020, the average house price in London stood at £497k – almost double the England-wide average of £262k. In Yorkshire, the figure was £175k, in the north west £177k, and £275k in the south west.

If food prices had tracked house price inflation over recent years, in London a chicken would now cost £100, says Anna Minton in her 2017 work Big Capital. This is also, obviously, replicated in the rental market: since 2010, average private rental prices in London have grown at five times the rate of average earnings, and the typical rent for a one-bed flat in London now exceeds the cost on average for a three-bed place in every other English region.

Concentrating the nation’s economic, political and cultural assets in one city, and with virtually no shackles on the property market, London is a safe bet for investors who seek regular income and an above-inflation appreciation of their assets.

A quarter of all new graduates from UK universities in 2014 and 2015 were working in London within six months, including 38% of Russell Group graduates with first class or upper-second class degrees. This steady deluge of people migrating to the all-consuming capital has been a boon for prospective property investors. London’s population is now eight times larger than the UK’s second-largest city, Birmingham, while the number of people living in poverty in London (some 2.5m) is only slightly smaller than the entire population of Greater Manchester. 

Thus, at the behest of the government, making virtually no effort to deter this frenzy of predatory capitalism, London has been colonised by development companies and professional landlords. 

“Many London homes are not bought to be used as a primary residence by their owners, but rather as either a store of wealth, a vehicle to deliver capital appreciation, a source of rental income – or a combination of the three,” says the campaign group Action on Empty Homes.

Contrast this with the remarks of Margaret Thatcher, in her first speech as Conservative party leader in 1975. “Let me give you my vision: a man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master – these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free country and on that freedom all our other freedoms depend,” she said. 

Since Thatcher made this proclamation, however, her vision of a ‘property owning democracy’ has been reserved, in the capital at least, to an ever-shrinking elite. If you were living in London in 1981, you were more likely to be in social rented housing than any other form of accommodation. Spurred by Thatcher’s housing reforms, however, social rented housing is now the least typical avenue for Londoners, constituting just 20% of households. The market rented sector, meanwhile, has boomed – its share increasing from roughly 10% in the late 1980s to nearly 30% today.

This is encapsulated in the capital’s landmarks, many of which have been purchased as accessories by oligarchs. The Shard, the tallest freestanding structure in the city and the second tallest in the country, is owned by the state of Qatar – effectively a glass temple to an offshore elite that has quietly occupied the capital. The Gherkin, the Shard’s phallic rival, is owned by a Brazilian conglomerate; the Fenchurch Building (otherwise known as the ‘Walkie Talkie’) is owned by a Hong Kong company best known for its Chinese-style food sauces. City Hall, the pantheon of democracy in London, is owned by the Kuwaiti sovereign wealth fund.

London’s wealth is increasingly hoarded by a property-owning aristocracy using the city as an investment fund, whose assets have bloated while austerity has been inflicted on public-sector workers and the low-paid. 

Some 74% of impoverished adults in the capital are in working families, up from 62% a decade ago. In the three years to 2016, 39% of private renters and 46% of social renters were in poverty, falling to 12% among owner-occupiers. Meanwhile, the servitude of people living in the capital has also manifested through a lack of social mobility outside the capital. London accounts for 30% of all private-sector employment in the UK but only 15% of its population – requiring outsiders to pay a hefty fee, in the form of outrageous property costs, to break into the almighty capital. For people able to live and work at home in London, especially during the early years of their career, this blockade to their future prospects is removed. 

Moreover, London’s landlord economy risks exacerbating major intergenerational inequalities. Total property equity in London and the south east amounted to some £1.53tn in 2018, versus £533bn in the north, according to the property agent Savills. Homeowners in the capital are therefore the beneficiaries of a colossal property reserve that will eventually be endowed to the next generation, thus compounding the vast inequalities between London and everywhere else. 

The nation is trapped in London’s orbit, while London has been captured by landlords. To halt our slide into a mediaeval era of economic development and class relations, we must incubate new pockets of heat outside the capital, more heavily regulate London’s lawless property market, and reclaim this oligarch haven for ordinary people.

Sam Bright is DeSmog’s UK deputy editor, and the author of Fortress London: Why We Need to Save the Country from Its Capital.

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