A Swing For a Pound, a Hit For a Penny

London, January 2017. A £15 million, Grade II listed McMansion in Belgravia is occupied by members of the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, also known by their dubious acronym, ANAL.

ANAL claimed it was bringing attention to the number of empty houses in London, in light of a city experiencing both a homelessness and a housing crisis. The house in question was owned by a Russian oligarch, who had let it stand empty since buying it in 2014.

Geographical distance between Belgravia and Salisbury aside, objects in the mirror are, in fact, closer than they appear.   

As I write this, another London mansion is hosting the Russian presidential elections, amidst high anti-Russian sentiments following a week fraught with expulsions, sanctions, and general finger-pointing. 23 diplomats have been expelled, Sergei Lavrov has been disinvited; the UK finally appears to be taking a stand.

The PM’s decision to expel Russian diplomats in reaction to the nerve agent attack on a former spy on Wednesday was widely supported, with many observing that it was the most extreme measure taken against Russia since the Cold War. But what impact does expelling 2nd tier diplomats have when the UK remains the prime destination for Russian money, whether freshly laundered or otherwise?

From luxury shopping, to million-pound investment visas, to lavish Mayfair properties, London is a hotbed for new Russian money. Houses, which are often purchased through offshore companies to avoid direct connection to the owner (thus making the process even murkier), are commonly left unoccupied. The BBC, in a 2014 article, reports around 36,000 of these ‘hidden ownership’ houses around London, with one residential area in Belgravia nicknamed the Red Square due to its concentration of wealthy Russians.

As a result of the UK government’s turning a blind eye to non-transparent money transactions, coupled with loopholes in existing legislation that facilitate property ownership as a means of laundering money, swathes of central London have turned into ghostly islands of immaculate, empty houses. Apart from killing off any sense of community, this rockets up real estate prices, making it increasingly difficult for people to get onto the London property ladder.

For bringing up the question of Russian money laundering, Jeremy Corbyn was generally lambasted by both corners of the press, yet he had a point. The PM’s supposedly decisive rebuke of the Russian government and the UK’s assumption of the moral high ground rings a little hollow, considering that a substantive chunk of the capital was bought with money obtained through dubious means, and maintained using yet more questionable channels.

When you sell your own house for dirty money, don’t be surprised to then find it empty. One can only hope that the government will use this opportunity to take truly decisive action. For now, the PM’s decision is indicative of the UK’s unwillingness to turn away from the allure of extensive oligarch investment.

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