Lisbon is basically bribing foreigners to help revive its housing market – and it’s working

Picture-perfect Lisbon has had a new lease (ha) of life after changes to the property and rental markets. Image: Pedro Szekely

Sometimes in life, it’s good to give your property market a bit of a kick up the backside: get growth firing, keep house prices ticking up, and make sure that there’s plenty of buying and selling and new developing going on.

To anybody living in London – or indeed, most of the rest of the UK – this is a pretty horrifying idea. Indeed, many of us have rejoiced at news suggesting property prices might finally be starting to fall – particularly at the upper echelons of the housing market, where sales of the most expensive properties in London are down 44 per cent over the last year compared to the previous year.

But Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, knows what happens when the opposite is true. For decades, properties across the capital – and particularly in its gorgeous historic centre – were crumbling, peeling, dilapidated, and run-down.

Strict government-enforced rent controls meant that there was no incentive to improve properties that were let out to tenants – or even merely to keep them looking up to shape. And thanks to high tax rates targeting the housing market, it often just didnt seem worth selling a property. 

Enter a CityMetric hero of sorts (there’s nothing we love more than a good city mayor). António Costa was elected mayor of Lisbon in 2007, and quickly got to work deregulating the housing market – perhaps a surprising move, given his credentials as a Socialist Party mayor.

António Costa, now Portugal's Prime Minister. Image: FraLiss.

Rent controls were stripped back, and the long system you used to have to go through to get any planning permission to improve and upgrade a property was made less complicated. At the same time, Costa also cut taxes – most prominently the sales taxes affecting property sales, and VAT levied on new property developments.

Suddenly it became easier to improve a property, knock down a bashed-in old building and build a new development in its place – or even just sell a property on to someone else without getting hit by a huge extra bill.

At the same time, though, the national picture was changing. 2012, possibly the worst year in the story of southern Europe’s debt and the Eurozone crisis, saw Portugal saddled with punitive austerity measures as part of a £65bn bailout package from the EU and the IMF.

So Portugal came up with the ‘golden visa’ programme, in which foreign investors could get a residence permit for Portugal in exchange for throwing a load of money at the Portuguese economy.

Off its main squares, Portugal's back streets were being neglected. Image: Luca Galuzzi.

Though there were all sorts of ways to do this – you could donate €250,000 to a museum or a heritage centre, or you could simply transfer €1m into a Portuguese bank. But thanks to a condition whereby investors have to spend at least a week in Portugal in the first year, and two weeks across the following two years, the most popular way into the golden visa scheme was to buy at least €500,000 worth of real estate. After all, Portugal’s a pretty nice place.

According to the Portuguese government’s own figures, 4,423 such visas have been given to foreign spenders since the scheme was introduced in 2012 – and though the Chinese were originally the vast bulk of such investors, the Turkish have recently surged to take up the offer.

More than £850m has been invested in property through the golden visa scheme in the past year – adding up to just over £2.5bn since the scheme launched.

And it’s worked. Average property prices in Lisbon went up by six per cent in the last financial year, and by 16 per cent over the past three years.

Aggressively photogenic Lisbon. Image: Yasmina2410.

The oldest neighbourhoods in Lisbon’s heart have perked up, retaining their hilly, cobbled, winding charm but shedding the certain is it going to fall over, am I safe walking alone here at night, clapped-out chic these areas used to have.

Of course, the visa scheme and Costa’s deregulatory measures as mayor cannot be taken in isolation. Portugal has pushed tourism, and Lisbon’s tourism business has grown by more than 50 per cent a year for the past three years.


Investing in and improving property has also become more lucrative as services such as Airbnb make it easier for anyone to let out a flat in Lisbon’s old core to city-breakers and summer holidaymakers.

This is all good news, bringing a city that was on its knees economically back to greater health, and keeping its streets in good state by giving property owners an incentive to perk things up.

But Lisbon now needs to be careful. Though the city is still a relatively affordable place to buy property – at an average of £1,193 per sq metre, in comparison to £11,321 in Kensington and Chelsea, or £6,959 in Wandsworth – the incomes of local people haven’t necessarily kept pace with that growth.

If Lisbon can keep a happy equilibrium between supporting government-promoted, deregulation-backed growth in the housing market and avoiding a London-style, income-draining housing crisis where rents and mortgages soar out of the reach of ordinary people, then it’ll have managed something formidable.

In the meantime, I’ll keep rooting down the back of the sofa for that €500,000.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.