‘And if you look to your left you will see a house once linked to Rakhat Aliyev, Kazakhstan’s former intelligence chief, who died in police custody in Austria while awaiting charges of corruption, torture and murder.’ These apartments form the final stop in London’s new unmissable attraction, the London Kleptocracy Tour. The tour is a Beverley Hills-type guide around the houses of the colourful oligarchs of the Former Soviet Union who have bought up London’s super super prime properties with the help of the capital’s lawyers, estate agents and PR firms.
The tour takes in such obvious classics as One Hyde Park, Kensington Palace Gardens (the oligarchs apparently love the received kudos from being so near to the Royal Family as well as the no photography rule enforced by the nearby embassies) and Belgrave Square. Lesser known spots include an apartment overlooking the Houses of Parliament worth 100 times the annual salary of the serving Russian minister whose name appears on the title deeds. The tour also takes in a splendid listed mansion in north London, said to be one of the largest private residences in the city and estimated by estate agents to be worth over £100 million. Who would live in a house like this?
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Unfortunately this is where the aforementioned PR’s and lawyers jump in to protect their clients. But what can be said is that figures from the National Crime Agency estimate that billions of pounds is laundered through the UK every year. According to the journalist Ben Judah, ‘London is the new capital of corruption in the 21st century.’ ‘It is a looting machine and British estate agents, hedge-funders and lawyers are the new valets to this corrupt thieving super elite,’ he tells the tour.
It’s not just the Russians; a couple of Nigerian ex-governors have found themselves in hot water over their unaccounted for London homes, but it is the Russians who do it with such panache. ‘I worked on a TV show called Meet the Russians,’ Peter Pomerantsev of the Legatum Institute told us. ‘We managed to find the London-based wife of a Russian steel tycoon who liked to have baths in champagne because it kept her skin fresh and who remodelled her apartment on a 7-star hotel she once stayed in in Dubai.’
While this might provide work for British vintners, decorators and television production crews it does come at a cost. The NCA points out that the flow of illicit funds into London is distorting the housing market, pricing Londoners out of their city. The effect of this transfer of wealth on poorer countries where the money flows from is rather worse. Judah estimates that one trillion pounds a year is transferred from poor countries to wealthy ones by corrupt elites. London property, into which tens of millions of pounds can be sunk by untraceable offshore companies with little official scrutiny, remains one of the best options for hiding it.
Most of the activists and journalists were positive that the UK is beginning to wake up to the scale of money laundering in London. Lord Rooker of the anti-corruption All Party Parliamentary Group told me, ‘David Cameron has done more than his predecessors to stop this. But if we can get companies in Jersey, the BVI and other offshore companies to reveal who owns them, then we are coming a long way to solving this problem.’ In the meantime, tour parties of gawking tourists taking photos outside oligarch’s bedrooms might be the first sign that Londoners are becoming less tolerant to the industrial scale of corruption going on in their city.
The Spectator, 9.02.2016