Riots, the rich and London

By David Bain

One UK newspaper during the recent riots in London produced an interactive map of where all the rioting and disorder was taking place in the British capital.

At first glance the map looked pretty scary – dots highlighting trouble were almost everywhere. With the Olympics less than a year away, it’s not an image the tourist authorities, nor for that matter the politicians, want to think too much about.

Most of the dots were in poorer parts of London, although  middle-class areas like Ealing in west London and Clapham Common south of the Thames were also affected.

With the exception of a few smashed shop windows in Sloane Street in Knightsbridge, most of London’s wealthiest areas remained untroubled by the riots – no doubt to the great relief of the few very wealthy people who haven’t decamped from the capital for their annual summer break.

Nevertheless, the sheer scale and depth of the rioting is likely to raise concerns about London’s security among the rich – but only marginally if history is any guide.

In much of the 1970s, during arguably London’s darkest days since World War II when widespread union strikes nearly brought the city to a standstill, newly rich Gulf Arabs flooded into the capital, seemingly oblivious to the wider issues affecting London and the rest of the UK.

Indeed, maybe the rich, or at least the rich attracted to London, might in fact be partly drawn to the capital because of what is often referred to as its “edge”. Unlike other rich hangouts in Europe – Switzerland, Monaco and the south of France – part of London’s appeal to foreigners, wealthy or not, has been its creative and hip sub-culture often linked to poorer or up-and-coming parts of the city.

Roman Abramovich, London’s best known Russian billionaire, and his other half, often visit art galleries in “edgier” parts of London to be part of the zeitgeist of the art scene, or at least to be part of the fun. The rich also often make up some of the crowd at the capital’s cooler music scene venues – or rather they would like to think they do.

They of course return to their trophy houses in Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea afterwards. And fly out to second and third homes abroad when they want a change of scenery.

For these reasons, the riots aren’t likely to scare away the rich. Ironically, it might actually add to London’s appeal as Europe’s capital of “edginess”.

There is of course a limit to all this edginess. If a few more shop windows and even properties are vandalised in London’s smarter streets, then no doubt the retreat to second and third homes abroad will accelerate and the rich will start questioning London as a place to live.

Interestingly, in just over two weeks’ time, the Notting Hill Carnival takes place – Europe’s biggest street carnival. Tracing its origins back to the 1960s when Notting Hill was a much less salubrious area than it is today, the carnival has always been a flash point for issues around race and alienation from power.

The trouble is that today Notting Hill is among London’s wealthiest areas – where houses sell for anything north of £5 million. It also borders even wealthier areas like Holland Park and Kensington.

Security firms are no doubt doing brisk business in the area.

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