The house with an underground beach, and other discoveries about the basements of London’s super-rich

West London from the air. Image: Getty.

In 2008 there were estimated to be 8.6m “high net worth individuals” – people with $1m or more of investable assets – in the world. By 2016 this had increased by 92 per cent to 16.5m, according to the World Wealth Report.

The geographical distribution of this population is highly concentrated: 4.795m in the USA; 2.891m in Japan; 1.280m in Germany; 1,129,000 in China; 579,000 in France and 568,000 in the UK (compared to 362,000 in 2008). Some half a million of these people live in and around London, in a set of tightly circumscribed neighbourhoods.

All of this wealth sloshing around London has had myriad consequences for the built environment. Perhaps the most evident has been the appearance of a large number of “super-high”, “super-prime” residential towers – vertical urban housing that has become something of an elite preserve.

But the wealth that has not found its way into the changing skylines of the city has still had major impacts on the existing built environment. Many high-end properties have been transformed as super-affluent newcomers commission often brutal structural conversions of older properties into “state-of-the art” living spaces. Maximising the size of all interior spaces and infusing them with exterior light has now become de rigueur, as have various design and technological “solutions” to matters of privacy and security.

But, in many areas of “super-prime” London attractive to “super-rich” elites, the nature of the original architecture combined with planning restrictions often makes it very difficult to extend properties laterally, or to add additional floors on the top of properties. And so, for some, the only “solution” has been to go down.

Consequently, residential basement developments in the wealthiest parts of London have increased markedly in recent years. The construction of this new subterranean London for the super-rich has been the subject of much comment but, until recently, little systematic investigation. Our new research now suggests that such developments are emblematic of how London is changing. Along with residential high-rise luxury towers (“luxified skies”) sprouting up across the city, we are also witnessing an epidemic of “luxified troglodytism” – super-rich households extending their properties in a subterranean direction by way of basement excavation.

Basement blueprint. Image: Emphasis photography/Hogarth Architects.

Digging down

In order to investigate this phenomena, we extracted data from planning portals for the seven London Boroughs of Camden, Hammersmith & Fulham, Harringay, Islington, Kensington & Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster – all localities that cover core “super-prime” London – between 2008 and the end of 2017. We discovered that 4,650 basement developments had been granted planning permission.

Granted basement applications in Kensington & Chelsea, 2008-17. Image: Sophie Baldwin/Beth Holroyd/author provided.

Hammersmith and Fulham has the greatest number – 1,147 over the decade – followed by Kensington and Chelsea with 1,022 and Westminster with 678. We would classify the great majority (80.7 per cent) as “standard” single-storey excavations – but 16.9 per cent (785) were “large” two-storey (or the equivalent in volume) constructions and 2.4 per cent (112) could only be described as “mega” basements – three storeys or more deep (or the equivalent in volume).

It is the 785 large and 112 mega-basements that should be the real focus of our interest. These almost 900 excavations are on a different scale to the standard constructions. Together they contain 367 swimming pools, 358 gyms, 178 cinemas and 63 staff spaces. We also found 14 car lifts, seven art galleries, two gun stores – and one owner who admitted to building a “panic” room.

Upside down houses revealing basements as extrusions. Image: Sophie Baldwin/Beth Holroyd/author provided.

Some of these basements can take many years of disruptive construction to complete and concerns have been raised about their environmental impact. Perhaps the most “luxified” development we discovered was one that had been granted planning permission in Holland Park in 2013 under a large semi-detached house. It consisted of a new three-storey basement under the entire property and part of the rear garden. It includes a staff kitchen, staff bedroom, six WCs, a gym, a media room, a family room, a family kitchen, a guest bedroom, a guest kitchen, a laundry room, a drying room, a sauna, a steam room, two shower rooms, a jacuzzi, a plunge pool, a pantry, a full-sized swimming pool and a beach. (Yes, a beach.)

In this particular basement development the “water-related” features were of a roughly equivalent volume to an average new-build property in England. Some of the super-rich swim, bathe and steam subterraneously in spaces equivalent to what the rest of us might consider adequate to undertake all of our domestic activities in.


All this shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of larger basement excavations in the last ten years. Such widespread development of subterranean London is an important component of broader changes in the built environment that have occurred since the 2008 financial crash. The “luxified skies” that Londoners are more used to are highly visible reminders of elite power – but these deluxe basements which, in aggregate, are equivalent in depth to 50 Shards, are also an important aspect of the type of city that London has become.

The ConversationThe super rich continue to have a significant impact on London – it is simply not so noticeable any longer. Wealth is burrowing underground, rather than just reaching for the skies.

Roger Burrows, Professor of Cities, Newcastle University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.