Life in the 'Alpha Territory': London's 'Super-Rich' Neighbourhoods

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Ctr for Urban and Community Research

Abstract

"Of all the classes, the wealthy are the most noticed and least studied" - Galbraith, JK (1977: 44) The Age of Uncertainty Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Despite public and political interest in the wealthy we know surprisingly little about where and how they live, nor how they fit into the social, cultural and economic life of the metropolitan centres within which they tend to live. Social research has tended not to focus on this group, largely because they are hard to locate, and even harder to collaborate with in research. In this project we hope to address both these sets of concerns by focusing extensive research effort onto a number of key case study localities in London and by using a range of approaches to address these problems.

In economic terms the life and functioning of rich neighbourhood spaces appears intuitively important. For example, attractive and safe spaces for captains of industry, senior figures in political and non-government organizations are often regarded as major markers of urban vitality and the foundation of broader social networks that may make-up the broader glue of civic and political society. Yet we know very little about how such neighbourhoods operate, who they attract and how they are linked to other cities and their neighbourhoods globally.

Work on deprived and middle-class neighbourhoods has long been a significant element of social scientific research. In particular it has been through work on poverty, the compounded disadvantage of life in deprived neighbourhoods and work on gentrification that much of what we know about how localities operate and how class relations and social identities are 'plugged-in' to localities, has arisen. Our aim in this research would be to supplement and build on the reach of this work by more firmly grappling with what might be described as elite neighbourhoods - locales inhabited by the very affluent; what geodemographers have recently come to term the 'alpha territory'.

The life and impact of the residential choices of the 'super rich' has been a major strand in more conceptual (and some limited empirical work) by members of the research team. This work advanced the proposition that the upper-tier of income groups living in cities tend to exploit particular forms of service provision (such as education, cultural life and personal services), are largely distanced from the mundane flow of social life in urban areas and tend to be withdrawn from the civic life of cities more generally. Some of this work is underpinned by a slender literature on, for example, gated communities, but it has surprisingly been under-used as the guiding framework for close empirical work in affluent neighbourhoods, perhaps largely as a result of the perceived difficulty of working with such individuals.

Our work would combine these recent statements about inequality and socially fracturing forms of urbanism (in terms of urban governance, services and social networks) to attempt a ground-breaking study of the life in and of super-rich areas. The research would profile a select group of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the UK to understand more about them and to develop clearer and evidenced positions on the urban life and society of the super rich in the UK. We will employ a multi-method research design which will include both the analysis of existing data and detailed case studies of six carefully selected neighbourhoods in and around London. We believe that the result will be a unique series of datasets from which the public, policymakers and academic commentators can learn more about these rich spaces, the social networks within and beyond them, and their role within contemporary city life more broadly.

Planned Impact

Taken as a whole we envisage a number of types of research impact and we will need to carefully navigate a social field in which questions of wealth have become more and more socially contentious.

First, we can see that economic and societal impact may result where policymakers connect with our research findings on the urban needs and choices of very affluent members of the labour market in cities like London. Provisioning for this group is likely to be a divisive and problematic set of issues at this time and we will seek to write for policymakers in ways that engage with these problematics. There are clear difficulties in working within metropolitan contexts in which economic growth and privilege have become difficult spaces to navigate or to engineer. The research will also have a conceptual impact to the extent that it seeks to engage, influence and inform public opinions and insights into the life-world of the affluent and their broader connection to the social life of the city and economy more broadly. This includes questions, and the broader flow of debates, around how we may understand policy choices linked to this group, who this group are, how they fit into the contemporary class schema and flow of urban life more broadly. Finally the impact of the project will also be felt here through the generation of new capacity-building around the development of technical skills and methods in relation to the study of the affluent in the UK and internationally. These skills are significantly under-developed at a time when they are clearly in need. We will assess our impact here by monitoring policy debates and legislative instruments.

Second, we will engage think tanks and observe their research and related agendas to see whether our work has infiltrated these modes of thinking and communication. We will monitor media reporting of our work and maintain counts of downloads of our working papers and bulletins and final reports. Think tanks concerned with the wider impacts of social inequality and spatial divisions (the potential negative impacts of the super-affluent on city communities and social politics) are very likely to find findings from our work, which link the lifestyles and wider economic role of the wealthy in terms of the broader city, of use. Here we are particularly thinking of findings detailing strategies of residential selection, social closure and political-social beliefs. There has been significant interest in the impacts of inequality and the fiscal implications of austerity since 'the crash'. We see a number of key groups and bodies benefiting from our results given the project's emphasis on placing the rich in a wider urban and social context. More specifically we will engage with the RSA, the JRF, housing charities, the IPPR and so on. Right of centre and market-oriented think tanks will also be likely beneficiaries given their beliefs about the role of the rich as wealth generators and economic catalysts more broadly.

Third, given the significant appetite for research findings that focus on how the rich live, as well as their urban and social positions, we want to engage fully with broader public debates. The research will provide often-unique insights into the worlds of super-rich neighbourhoods in London. The public benefit of this work will be in demystifying and making publicly accessible a series of insights based on empirical data. Debates about social inequality have sharpened recently and seem unlikely to diminish given long-term economic forecasts and austerity measures. In this context there remains a general interest in treatments of social issues focused 'up' the income and class hierarchy. We will create an email update function on the website so that anyone can request to be kept informed of outputs as they arise from the project and will also engage TV and radio outlets, with which we have good relations, such as documentary film-makers and the BBC Great British Class Survey team.

Publications

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Atkinson R (2017) Elite Formation, Power and Space in Contemporary London in Theory, Culture & Society

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Atkinson R (2019) Necrotecture: Lifeless Dwellings and London's Super-Rich NECROTECTURE in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

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Atkinson R (2017) Cities and the Super-Rich

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Atkinson R. (2017) The (in)visibility of riches, urban life and exclusion in Building better societies: Promoting social justice in a world falling apart

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Atkinson, R. (2015) 'The Power of Raw Money' in Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition)

 
Description The research has been disseminated by way of a number of academic journal articles, book chapters, conference presentations (throughout the UK, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong and the USA), blogs (see a list here: https://autotomically.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/charting-the-alpha-territory/), and more accessible shorter pieces in outlets such as The Conversation, Discover Society, Le Monde Diplomatique and OpenDemocracy. We have also produced a Policy Briefing - International Flows of Capital into London Property - distributed by SPERI at the University of Sheffield. We also held an open end of award conference - attracting some 60 attendees - jointly with the III at the LSE (http://www.lse.ac.uk/InternationalInequalities/events/Elites%20conf.aspx) in July 2015. In July 2016 we held a 2 day event within one of our case study sites - held in the Highgate Scientific and Literary Institute - that involved an extensive exhibition about the history of the 'great houses' in Highgate 1914-2014 and a pubic lecture attended by over 100 local residents interested in our work. All written forms of output are detailed here on ResearchFish. We have also worked closely with Ramidus Consulting Ltd to produce a report on the specifics of the Westminster super prime housing market - http://transact.westminster.gov.uk/docstores/publications_store/news/prime_residential_research_report_140722.pdf. The findings of the research have attracted substantial media interest. We have been interviewed by a number of media organisations including the company responsible for producing the BBC2 series The Super Rich and Us. We have worked closely with the Guardian/Observer producing a series of articles that invoked substantial debate. These articles provided important context ahead of the release of The Panama Papers. The first in Dec 2015 - http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/dec/06/battle-rages-for-soul-of-highgate - about elite displacement in Highgate received 983 comments and extensive media follow up my the local press, radio and the Daily Mail. The second in Jan 2016 - http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jan/23/london-fawning-politicians-welcome-rich - about the role of politicians in assisting the super-rich to access London property received 416 comments. The third, also in Jan 2016 - http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2016/jan/30/luxury-london-homes-86m-social-housing - examined our policy ideas for a social housing levy on super prime properties received 596 comments. the most recent piece in March 2016 - http://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/12/family-office-private-wealth-funds - looked at the role of family offices in central London and received 417 comments. In April 2016 we presented our work at the Rabbit Road Institute to local people in East London -http://createlondon.org/event/why-study-the-rich/- including debating the issues with artists, Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics commentator for the Guardian and others.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic