Far from Chelsea: diggers during the regeneration of Elephant & Castle in London. Photo: Getty
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The bizarre secret of London’s buried diggers

After excavating your mega-basement in Holland Park, it’s cheaper and easier to leave the JCB entombed down there with the pool, personal cinema and staff quarters. 

I’ve made a discovery about what is buried under the swimming pools and basement conversions of wealthy west London. This booty is worth about £5m. More revealing, however, is another fact: this £5m was tossed away like small change tipped into a busker’s hat. It is not Nazi art, or plutonium that has been used to kill the enemies of Russian oligarchs. It is a fleet of diggers.

Beginning in the 1990s, buyers of London’s most expensive addresses began to feel a little hemmed in, even claustrophobic, inside their houses. Where could one take a swim, for example? Or watch a film on a cinema-size screen? Obviously, 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.

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.

The challenge of adding new subterranean floors to London houses has become a highly lucrative business. The heavy lifting – or, in this case, the heavy digging – is usually contracted out to basement-conversion specialists. These firms discovered that it was reasonably easy to get a small digger (occasionally two) into the rear garden of a house on an exclusive 19th-century square. Sometimes they simply knock a hole in the wall and drive the diggers straight through the house. In other cases, the windows are so large that a digger can squeeze through without dismantling the bricks and mortar.

The difficulty is in getting the digger out again. To construct a no-expense-spared new basement, the digger has to go so deep into the London earth that it is unable to drive out again. What could be done?

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. Both of these stages were very expensive, not to mention unpopular among the distinguished local residents.

A new solution emerged: 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.

The new method, now considered standard operating practice, is to cover the digger with “hardcore”, a mixture of sand and gravel. Then a layer of concrete is simply poured over the top. Digger? What digger? The digger has literally dug its own grave – just as the boring machines that excavated the Channel Tunnel were abandoned beneath the passage they had just created.

How many of these once perfectly functioning and possibly still serviceable diggers are petrified underneath central London, like those Romans preserved cowering in the corners of houses in Pompeii? Estimates vary. One property developer I asked reckoned at least 1,000; another put the figure at more like 500. In some of London’s newest luxury conversions, “sub-basements” are being tucked beneath the existing basement conversions. But developers are stumbling on a new kind of obstacle as they burrow deeper still: abandoned diggers from the last round of improvements.

On one level, the series of calculations that ends with hundreds of vehicles concreted underneath basements is entirely rational. On another level, it is a postcard from the front line of one of the craziest stories of our age: the global struggle to own elite London property.

In 1985, Michael Wood presented In Search of the Trojan War for the BBC. For many of us brought up in the 1980s, this was our first taste of archaeology. At times, the methodology seemed intriguing. Wandering around classical Asia Minor, the irrepressibly enthusiastic Wood would pick up a coin or trinket, or perhaps stumble on what might have been a foundation stone. He would then stare deeply into the camera and suggest something like, “Here, surely, lies the inner sanctum, the very essence of the seventh great Trojan civilisation.”

Three millennia from now, when Wood’s successors are excavating the dazzling ruins of west London, they will surely decipher a correlation between London’s richest corners and the presence of these buried diggers. The atrium of the British Museum, around 5000AD, will feature a digger prominently as the central icon of elite, 21st-century living.

What will the explanatory caption say? “Situated immediately adjacent to the heated underground swimming pool and cinema at the back of the house, no superior London address was complete without one of these highly desirable icons, sometimes nicknamed ‘the Compact Cat’. This metallic icon was a special sacrificial gesture, a symbol of deep thanks to the most discussed, revered and pre-eminent god of the age, worshipped around the world: London Property.” 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.