All the sickening things insiders told me about MIPIM, the London conference for property magnates

'Within hours of arriving, I was on a yacht with some investors, being asked to join the Freemasons'

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The Independent Online

This week, the UK’s largest property event, the MIPIM conference, has opened in London. “#MIPIMUK is waiting for you,” tweeted @MIPIMWorld, the Twitter handle of the international organisation. Underneath was an image of exploding paintballs, overlaid with the words: “THE POST BREXIT BOOM – Are you ready?”

The conference this week will be a fairly sedate affair: property magnates with lanyards in expensive suits, stalls dedicated to the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse, tired corporate phrases like “driving innovation and diversification in the market” (tweeted out from that same MIPIM handle this morning), and so on. The real fun is had at their annual event in Cannes, scheduled for mid-March, where estate agency professionals and wealthy investors cavort around five-star hotels and champagne receptions in the sunshine, while ruminating about the housing crisis many of them benefit from directly.

“Within hours of arriving, I was on a yacht with some investors, being asked to join the Freemasons,” one MIPIM attendee told me about his experience last year. Another described it as a “nonstop party” where she woke up one morning and couldn’t remember the name of the hotel she was staying in “until I looked at the monogram on my bespoke dressing gown”.

“You meet some people who are involved in things that feel dodgy,” another property professional admitted. “I work in property and I didn’t know about the layers of middlemen and secret deals that go on, particularly where London is concerned. Investors buy up flats before they’re built, then sell them on to other investors, but they don’t want the public to know they’re selling them again because that would drive down the price of the other units they own. So they pay off middlemen to do private deals with people they know, just to keep knowledge of the deals out of the public domain.”

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Keeping prices high is the business most of these property magnates are in: the housing crisis which makes the London market impossible for young first-time buyers on average incomes is, of course, the lifeblood of many who run and attend MIPIM. Attracting more foreign investors into the London market – particularly to buy smaller properties which can be rented back to young Londoners unable to get on the housing ladder – is central to their continued influence across global property markets. And as the value of the pound plummets, their jobs only become easier.

Estate agents were happy to tell me that they’re seeing more foreign investors than ever offer to buy London flats traditionally expected to be taken by UK-based first time buyers “because their money goes twice as far now”, which is “great for business”. This is the “Brexit bubble” people feared would make the housing crisis worse after leaving the EU, and it’s fast becoming a reality. One presumes it’s why one of MIPIM’s main events this week is titled: “Extraordinary times, extraordinary returns?”.

Cast your eye over the speakers at MIPIM this week and there’s little to feel optimistic about. There’s Navid Chamdia, the UCL-educated head of real estate at the Qatar Investment Authority. He focuses “on direct acquisitions, joint ventures and co-investments in Europe” after spending 12 years at Ernst & Young “advising on the financing and delivery of over $10bn of global real estate and infrastructure projects”. There’s Simon Mower, associate director at KPMG Debt Advisory who “has particularly strong experience in the real estate market… navigating the sector’s lender universe… structuring investment and development financing transactions for his clients.” There’s even one entertainingly named Mark Bourgeois.

Then, of course, there’s our astonishingly out-of-touch housing minister Gavin Barwell, who famously suggested that the solution to generational inequality was everybody’s rich grandparents skipping a generation with inheritance and giving the millions they’ve squirrelled away to their grandkids.

Barwell also made a speech two weeks ago in which he suggested the housing crisis could be tackled by making young people live in smaller rooms. “We want people to innovate – there are things the private sector is doing,” he told a fringe event at the Conservative conference. “I don’t know if anyone’s seen any of the schemes that Pocket [Living] have done where they’ve basically done a deal with the GLA [Greater London Authority] to get some flexibility on space standards. As a result they can offer a product well below market price.” A tarted-up way, of course, of saying Pocket Living has managed to twist the standards on what usually would be considered habitable. For a government minister to openly celebrate this isn’t just irresponsible; it’s downright bizarre.

Britain has the smallest homes in Europe at an average of 500sqft for a one-bedroom flat and Pocket Living sells 400sqft flats – about the size of the average American sitting room, or the average UK hotel room – starting at £250,000. This week, Gavin Barwell will speak at MIPIM alongside Marc Vlessing, chief executive of Pocket Living, whose background is “in City corporate finance”. If that doesn’t speak volumes about the housing crisis, the Government and the property professionals who pull the strings across the UK, I don’t know what does.