The World’s Most Expensive Wasteland

The World’s Most Expensive Wasteland

In the abandoned mansions of Bishops Avenue — London’s second most expensive street — ferns poke through staircases, water runs down walls and animal skeletons litter the carpets. How is decay blooming amid such valuable property? In fact, it’s blooming because of it.

In London, where housing prices steadily climb as the rest of the country struggles through a slow recovery, the most high-end residences are often not residences at all. Rather, they’re more like financial placeholders — sound investments made by wealthy foreigners who rarely, if ever, visit.

Take Belgravia, the central London neighbourhood that The New York Times described last year as a high-end ghost town.

The World's Most Expensive Wasteland

Image: Amanda Slater.

Most of the neighbourhood’s buildings, you see, have been bought up by people who declare them as secondary residences — meaning they don’t have to pay standard taxes — and might only actually use them for a week of each year. The Times‘ description of the sometime residents of one building includes “a Russian property magnate, a Nigerian telecommunications tycoon, the richest man in Ukraine, a Kazakh copper billionaire, someone who may or may not be a Kazkh singer and the head of finance for the emirate of Sharjah.”

Then there’s Bishops Avenue, a road recently named London’s second most expensive street and the subject of a new Guardian investigation that uncovered $US570 million worth of vacant property. Some of these massive mansions have never even been lived in; other homes have been left to decay for decades.

The World's Most Expensive Wasteland
The World's Most Expensive Wasteland

Homes along Bishops. Photo: David Jones 大卫 琼斯.

The Guardian article includes some amazing, atmospheric photos and descriptions of what lies behind the imposing facades:

…Water streams down ballroom walls, ferns grow out of floors strewn with rubble from collapsed ceilings, and pigeon and owl skeletons lie scattered across rotting carpets.

Other houses show signs of limited habitation. The roof of one £10m home, registered in the name of a Saudi princess, is overgrown with plants and the signs on the ramshackle gates state it is under “24-hour manned guard.”

In some photos, mirrored tiles crumble from bathroom walls that have never seen use. Insulation hangs from the ceiling of one sitting room, inadvertently matching the fluffy window treatments that still hang in the windows. Massive chandeliers are the only hint of the former grandeur of a decaying, soot-blackened ballroom.

The World's Most Expensive Wasteland
The World's Most Expensive Wasteland

This 3 million pound property on Bishops Avenue was taken over by squatters in 2009. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

Who owns these mansions? And why don’t they sell them? Or live in them? According to the paper’s investigation, they are mainly wealthy investors from oil-rich countries, including the Saudi royal family, which invested in the comparatively inexpensive homes in the 1980s and 90s.

In fact, many of the properties are registered in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands and Curaçao. Because property values in London have risen so sharply, the homes themselves are somewhat of an afterthought. Even in their dilapidated state, these homes are still incredible investments.

These empty neighbourhoods, in turn, help to drive up prices elsewhere, as basic market mechanics do their work.

And, slowly, a new picture of the modern capital city emerges: A metropolis that looks like moth-eaten silk, pocked with ragged holes where the most exclusive neighbourhoods stand dark and abandoned, pushing the real life of the city — its middle and lower classes — further into the periphery.

Lead image: Belgravia. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.