Who lives in central London now?

52 per cent of all £2m+ homes in central London are bought by overseas buyers.

Who lives in central London now? Anybody who has strolled the stuccoed streets of Belgravia and the verdant squares of Mayfair will have inevitably asked this question. The streets are filled with imported supercars and the sound of foreign languages, not to mention the thoroughly un-British clothes, shops and restaurants. Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Mayfair and, to an extent, Chelsea are no longer desirable addresses for the well-to-do British, such is the extent to which their prices have been driven up by foreign buyers.

There has been a tidal wave of recent research to underpin this point. Earlier this year, Savills announced that all the property of London’s 10 most expensive boroughs are more expensive than the entire combined worth of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The capital sees more house deals in excess of £100m than anywhere in the world and in the past year.

Then, releasing its April figures, Knight Frank revealed that London’s ‘super-prime’ market had risen again – 0.7 per cent in April and 7.7 per cent over the past 12 months. This, estate agency revealed, was driven by foreign demand: 52 per cent of all £2m+ homes in central London were bought by overseas buyers from March 2012 to March 2013.

Last week, further research was published by WealthInsight that shows London contains the most multimillionaires (individuals with over $30 m) in the world and the third most billionaires after New York and Moscow. Savills say that 32 per cent of these individuals are not UK domiciled. In fact, only 45 percent of buyers in central London are UK nationals. 

Furthermore, anyone who has flicked their way through this year’s Sunday Times Rich List will have noted that most of the top 10 are not British born.

Most of this research tells us what we already know, but who are these overseas multimillionaires who are dropping £50K on an Eton Square apartment. Researching this is no easy task due to the amount of London that is owned through offshore corporate vehicles. Only after months of laborious research could Vanity Fair reveal who actually owned One Hyde Park – the capital’s most expensive condominium.

Of the research that has been published, it should come as no surprise that most overseas buyers are Russian. Knight Frank says that 33 per cent of purchasers of properties over £10m between 2010 and 2012 were Russian. In second place were Middle Eastern buyers at 15.4 percent – in 2012, buyers of properties above £10m, 6 per cent were Omani and 3 percent from both Qatar and Kuwait. Again, no surprises here to anyone who has visited Knightsbridge in the summer, a migration focal point when the heat gets too hot in the Gulf. Buyers from the US are further down the list at 7.7 per cent, but estate agents expect the number to rise significantly over the next five years as the dollar exchange continues to favour such buyers.

Predictable as this research may be, we know one thing – it is not the British who are buying central London. And, as long as prices rise, the more the central London becomes an exclusive domain available only to the capacity of international wealth.

But how long can this continue? Surely there is only so much someone can pay for a studio apartment in Belgravia and finite number of overseas shoppers. The truth is London has an international appeal not only for finance, tax and business, but also lifestyle, education and, importantly for some, political exile. As long as London retains this edge, the longer prices are set to rise.   

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation