"I’m addicted to property porn. And I know I’m not alone. We’re all at it, searching Zoopla and estate agents’ websites for pictures and prices of our neighbours’ homes, our old homes, homes we’d like to live in and might one day be able to afford, homes we’d like to live in and know we will never be able to afford. I cyberroam them all, for the purposes of financial calculations, for reassurance, for ideas of what and what not to do in my own home, for seeing how envious and grateful I can become by turns.
It’s amazing how insanely lustful and violently repelled a colour scheme can make me: livid purple? Really? I bet you call it aubergine too. Duck egg blue? Come to Momma and bring your butler sink and roughly polished floorboards with you. Cluedo-like floor plans are a bonus. A little alcove in the bedroom? Sold – one boundlessly charming, if totally pointless feature is all I need. A kitchen at the front of the house? So you can enjoy the rumble of traffic with your coffee? Der-brains! And so on and so enjoyably forth.
But I draw the line at megamansions – the things bought by Russian oligarchs, international financiers and the like, gutted and refilled with ballrooms, sports halls, state-of-the-art everythings, golden geegaws and topped off with helipads. Yes, I like to fantasise and look at things way above my paygrade, but the houses of the truly, ludicrously, limitlessly rich are another order of magnitude altogether.
Let’s take the latest example – the Grade II-listed, 13 bedroom Italianate villa built in the mid-1850s in Kensington Palace Gardens, West London (a street nicknamed with not an iota of inaccuracy or exaggeration ‘Billionaires’ Row’) currently being renovated by owner, Russian born tycoon, Leonid Bravatnik. When he’s finished installing the gym, the cinema, the massage room, the multi-storey underground car park and the 25-foot swimming pool leading to a sheltered grotto, the property for which he paid £41m in 2004 will be worth around £200m. Which is still £50m less than the UK’s most expensive home: a Regency mansion near Buckingham Palace (pictured, above) which has a double staircase, huge ballroom and is 30 times bigger than the average London house.
Their houses make us ask who will stop them getting wealthier and wealthier?
Mega-mansions don’t excite envy. They’re too ludicrous for that. My jealousies are stirred by comfortable, well-appointed homes because they seem, in the superficial way I engage with them, to suggest the inhabitants lead the kind of secure, happy lives to which I aspire for myself and now doubly so for my son. Mega-mansions aren’t about that. But what they do tell us is still fascinating in their own way.
First of all they remind us how much money there is in the world. And how much of it is concentrated in the hands of so very few. They remind us that these people have more money – far, far more money – than they could spend in a dozen lifetimes. They remind us that when it comes to gathering wealth, there is no such thing as enough. With a very few notable exceptions like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, people don’t simply stop and say ‘My happiness is no longer appreciably increasing with every further million. Maybe I will stop using it to build overaccessorised ballrooms and start redistributing it instead.’
Their houses might also prompt us to ask who or what is there to stop them getting wealthier and wealthier and – as these things march in lockstep together – more and more powerful? Shouldn’t there be governments and things to hold them in check? Or at least make sure that they’re paying a fair share of their wealth in tax? Are there? And are they? Or is it too cynical to wonder if the UK tax system works for incredibly rich and powerful individuals in the same way as it does for incredibly rich and powerful companies like Starbucks (who claim they make no profit in the UK – apparently those outlets on every corner are just charity coffee dispensers), Amazon (no corporation tax paid on the £7.5bn sales generated here in the last three years) and Google (funnels its revenues through Bermuda to duck tax)? In other words, as an optional extra? Like, say, planning regulations (you try literally undermining London with secret grottoes and underground car parks in a listed building and see how far you get) seem to? As I say, fascinating in their own way. Fascinating."
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