There are many jaw-dropping tales that can be told about London’s property market, but Ed Smith’s story for the New Statesman takes some beating.
It begins with a practice that’s already well-established in London’s most exclusive neighbourhoods – or rather beneath them:
“Beginning in the 1990s, buyers of London’s most expensive addresses began to feel a little hemmed in, even claustrophobic, inside their houses…
“So, many of the squares of the capital’s super-prime real estate, from Belgravia and Chelsea to Mayfair and Notting Hill, have been reconfigured house by house. Given that London’s strict planning rules restrict building upwards, digging downwards has been the solution for owners who want to expand their property’s square-footage.”
Much to the annoyance of their neighbours, London’s resident and non-resident billionaires have been busy installing underground swimming pools, cinemas and other essential mod-cons.
Ed Smith thinks that some kind of Howard Hughes complex is the motivating factor:
“…the idea of leaving the house to pursue such pastimes – and thus engaging with the human colour and spectacle that were once considered inextricably bound up with living in a city – was too ghastly to countenance. No, all pleasures had to be brought within the boundaries of one’s house, thus protecting the owner from the dangers of face-to-face interaction with normal civilians.”
That may be true in some cases, but let’s not forget the overwhelming financial motivation. Because the British tax system prefers to target such fripperies as job creation, you can add whole new floors to your stake in the world’s hottest property market without so much as moving-up into a new Council Tax band. So why wouldn’t you build yourself a subterranean playground – especially if you don’t have to live there when the work is being done?
The only problem though is access – getting a load of digging equipment beneath a London town house is a tricky business. Walls can be knocked down or windows removed and the diggers driven into place, but how do you get the things back out again?
“Initially, the developers would often use a large crane to scoop up the digger, which was by now nestled almost out of sight at the bottom of a deep hole. Then they began to calculate the cost-benefit equation of this procedure. First, a crane would have to be hired; second, the entire street would need to be closed for a day while the crane was manoeuvred into place.”
When you do the sums, the solution is obvious:
“…simply bury the digger in its own hole. Given the exceptional profits of London property development, why bother with the expense and hassle of retrieving a used digger – worth only £5,000 or £6,000 – from the back of a house that would soon be sold for several million? The time and money expended on rescuing a digger were better spent moving on to the next big deal.”
There are no official figures, but informed estimates put the number of diggers now buried beneath London’s most desirable properties at between five hundred and a thousand.
Ed Smith wonders what the archeologists of the future will make of it all. Then again, they may be too busy trying to solve other mysteries. For instance, when they dig up our remains they’ll discover that, as a population, this was an era in which the people got taller with each generation, but the new homes that we built got smaller.
They’ll be particularly puzzled by the city once known as London: a strange place in which the rich lived underground while those of more limited means squeezed themselves into tiny apartments – despite the availability of undeveloped or under-developed land within and close to the city boundaries.
Our descendants will surely wonder why a culture that could afford to discard perfectly good building equipment couldn’t build enough homes to give its people space to live. Perhaps, as they unearth the buried diggers of Belgravia, they’ll simply conclude we were out of our minds.