Highgate: Battleground of the 21st-century elites

Highgate Horticultural Society's Autumn show. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Highgate Horticultural Society's Autumn show. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

What happens when a high status group is out-elited by wealthier, more powerful newcomers? In Highgate it’s a case of watch this space

How elite is too elite? A new study by King’s College and Goldsmiths universities suggests that Highgate may be the flashpoint at which this question is being thrashed out.

London is the world capital of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and Highgate has the dubious distinction of being one of their favourite addresses, given the sci-fi sounding moniker of an “Alpha Territory”.

Yet Highgate has always been an Alpha Territory of sorts. From 16th-century traders when it was a coaching stop, 17th-century professionals, religious radicals and 18th-century reformers and 19th-century industrialists to 20th-century intellectuals, the area’s evolution as a wealthy enclave is written in its domestic architecture, reflecting the changing tastes and requirements of its inhabitants over time. When Haringey or Camden are described as ‘deprived’ boroughs, there’s a wealth of history to show it’s not Highgate Village being referred to.

The difference now, says the report, is in the expectations and lifestyles of the new elites residing there, a difference whose battleground is the planning dispute.

During the mid 20th century, when Highgate was gaining its current reputation for middle class liberalism, it was assumed that the huge, detached homes once owned by Victorian industrialists would never again find private owners who could afford to live in and staff them. However, since the 1980s, when London became home once again to the super rich, these trophy houses have come back into fashion and, with minimum size requirements of the super rich around the 6.000sq ft mark, so has the basement extension.

Imagine the ground beneath Highgate and you envisage a labyrinthine network of swimming pools, multi-deck car lifts, cinemas, panic rooms, and staff quarters. These are the modern day equivalents of inherited country estates, shoved into urban plots with outside space considered a defensive rather than a recreational necessity. Unlike the ancestral seat of yore, for many of these HNWIs, homes have become little more than “development opportunities” and tradeable assets. And unlike previous elites, owning a home in a posh London village is not an opportunity to throw down roots and join an intellectual society or two with like-minded neighbours but a chance to live in spacious seclusion behind fortress-like electric gates.

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So what does the new elite value about Highgate? The report suggests not much in particular. This group could live equally happily in any metropolis, engaging with the neighbours only when throwing their financial might at them during planning battles. But Highate, or at least its “self-appointed representatives”, is fighting back with all the dignified outrage it can muster.

Who will win? On one side is all that money can buy. On the other: passion, privilege and a very Highgate form of people power. It’s all to play for.