Even the very rich—those with a net worth of $20 million or so—are increasingly stunned by the money they see sloshing around them. “I can’t complain, because we have a great lifestyle,” says an art collector who lives in Belgravia with her husband and children. “We eat at the best restaurants and just bought a big vacation home. But in the new London, we’re ‘comfortably’ poor. We’re swimming on the edges of real wealth.” By that she means the sort of wealth that buys a private jet or, at the very least, an account with NetJets. “The rich don’t fly commercial anymore,” she says.
Helen Kirwan-Taylor, an American writer whose English husband heads up a hedge fund, is one of the only people on her block in Holland Park without a chauffeur. And her foreign billionaire neighbors are driving her nuts. “They just park their money here, and they’re not interested in meeting English people,” she says. “We’re not even chatting with them at the grocer, because it’s the maids doing the shopping for them. Most of them don’t have any culture—it would be great if they were part of a wave of writers, artists and intellectuals. But these people add nothing; for them it’s all about showing off.”
So is London set to become the world’s next Monte Carlo, a soulless patch of land with the cultural complexity of Euro Disney? “London is what it is because of the creative industries based here,” says Kirwan-Taylor. “And if the intellectual body of the city—the artists, writers, designers, creative directors—can no longer afford to live here, that’s a big risk we’re taking.” Others predict that the growing ranks of the discontented might well spur a new wave of creativity in literature and art.
Gordon Brown and his Labour government might do their part to rebalance the economic scales. This fall, taking a cue from the Conservative Party (which has morphed into the new champion of the middle class), Brown announced plans to raise Britain’s famously low capital gains tax and sting nondomiciled residents living in the UK for more than seven years with an annual flat tax of $60,000. Meanwhile, the latest real-estate data indicates prices in central London are about to level off.
But it might be too late for Balfour, who, like many young London professionals, is contemplating a move abroad. “You can do so much more with your money in America,” she says. “And, you know, I think I’d rather be poodling up to Bleecker Street with the pushchair.”