Cabbages & Kings: The Big Launderette

Columnist  | Farrukh Dhondy

Opinion, Columnists

London should be rechristened the Big Launderette.

Representational image (Photo: AFP)

“‘All or nothing is a gamble,
A cosmic impatience
Because,’ said the sophist,
‘This life is a preamble
To the nothing that becomes all —
Even the human race came after the Fall’”
From Katy ki Beti
by Bachchoo

I am a trustee of a London theatre called Riverside Studios, named after its location by the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge. Our three theatres and cinema and several offices were housed, till last year, in this idyllic location in a building that was falling apart. Redevelopment was not an option but a necessity. We trustees went through a period of consultations with the owners of the redundant Queen’s Wharf warehouse that adjoined “our” very thriving cultural venue.

We were the last buildings standing on the banks of the river that had not been rebuilt. With the Queen’s Wharf owners, after months of bargaining, we decided to venture. Our buildings would be demolished and a developer would build us a new one with more theatrical and cultural space and modern facilities. To pay for it they would design and build flats above the art complex and sell them to make it worth their while. In addition to our enhanced, modernised spaces, the developer would give us a capital sum to invest in our non-profit theatrical activities.

We were converting our legal hold on the lease of a chunk of real estate into buildings and funds that would serve the purpose of culture for generations. (We are all honorary, invited trustees, no one gets paid anything — not even expenses.)

The contracts were signed, our old studios were demolished and construction on a huge scale began. Last week, we were invited by the builders to view work in progress and I went on the site, wore a hard hat and a luminous jacket and boots and, with ten colleagues, checked it out.

“There’s where the restaurant and bar will be and the cinema space is where those pipes run now — down there — wow! And Studio One with a capacity of X will be located on the floor when there is a floor… etc.” In the course of the visit we talked about the flats. “Oh, even though the site is literally a vast hole in the ground we’ve already sold 80 per cent of the flats,” our guide from the developing company told us. “For how much?” I asked. “Well a two-bedroom flat, not facing the river but inward above your theatres went for £2.8 million,” he said nonchalantly. “And the penthouses with views of the river and terraces?” “Oh, the penthouse went for £11.5 million.”

I took a deep breath. “And what nationality are the buyers of the penthouses?” I asked, risking an accusation of racism from my colleagues. “Couldn’t tell you that,” was the reply. My question was prompted by curiosity about a phenomenon that is overtaking Britain’s capital. A spectre is haunting London, or at least central and property-valuable parts of the city today.

Finding statistics is impossible, but Central London today, its housing stock, the flats in the new luxury tower blocks, the Victorian terraces of the whole of central London are being or have been, bought up with crooked, or what is known in India as “black”, money by Russians, Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis and some Chinese and Africans. Here’s a fairly typical story: An Egyptian individual called Ahmed Ezz, a steel magnate of sorts was arrested soon after the “Arab Spring” in that country, fined £2 billion for stealing from the state and sent to jail.

Nevertheless investigative journalists from Private Eye, a Brit fortnightly, now allege that Mr Ezz’s laundered money was used through two companies registered in the non-tax-paying black money-laundering British Virgin Islands to buy one of his three wives a flat in Knightsbridge worth “tens of millions of pounds” and another in an Edwardian apartment block worth £3.5 million.

If London’s property is an iceberg, that story is not the tip of it, but a mere crystal on a politically submerged surface. The present Tory government is aware of the fact that Russian oligarchs, Arab potentates, corrupt Chinese, Indian “do-numbris”, Pakistani politicians and African dictators and demagogues are investing in London property, leaving the flats and houses empty for most of the year, claiming “non-domicile” status and paying no taxes here.

If New York is known as the Big Apple, London should be rechristened the Big Launderette. In the ’60s and ’70s, the same Victorian terraces of South Kensington — which have become little non-resident Arabia — were bed-sitter-land for students and low-income-wallas. I lived in several of them myself and had a circle of friends who did the same until, in the late ’70s and ’80s, we were “ethnically cleansed” from those areas which were being rapidly acquired by the rich British. By the late ’90s, even the rich British couldn’t afford the property prices.

Flats and whole new housing complexes in the centre of London were bought up by companies registered in Luxembourg, the Virgin Islands or other tax-dodging retreats. The real owners, the individuals laundering their money, weren’t legally named on the deeds.

This great laundromat has had a disastrous effect on the social fabric of Britain.
House and flat prices in the whole of London have rocketed and young working people can’t afford to buy into the London housing market even at the humblest one-room or studio-flat level many tube stations away from Oxford Circus.

And Central London has nothing resembling a “community”. I still know people who are proud of living in Chelsea or Knights-bridge and in my crueller moments remind them that they are living in ghost towns, away from “real people”. I don’t mean that Arab petty royals, Russian swindlers and mafia and Indian kala-paisa-wallas are not “real people” — I admit they are humans of sorts, I simply mean that they are not in those “homes” most of the time and their rootedness in London and their shallow culture consists of shopping trips to overpriced stores and buying tickets for tourist musicals.