Racine had everything a west London restaurant could ask for: beaming reviews, great cooking and an enviable location opposite the V&A on the Brompton Road. For 12 years it served immaculate French standards to discerning diners and from the outside it looked like an institution to last a century.
But two weeks ago owner Henry Harris announced that Racine had moutarded its last lapin and would close. Quâ€™est-ce qui sâ€™est passÃ©?
â€œIt was inevitable. The site had become unsustainable,â€ says Harris. â€œA rent renewal was the catalyst, but the main cause was the shrinking residential population in what should be a saturated area. My original clients, who were 50 or 60 when we opened, were that bit older. Some of them couldnâ€™t afford to eat out as often after the recession, but others saw what their houses were worth and decided to realise that asset. They were replaced by non-doms who didnâ€™t live there. In some apartment blocks 20% were unoccupied â€“ one in five of my potential client base. It makes a big difference. In the block behind the restaurant it even became easier to park. You never expect to hear that in Knightsbridge.â€
Racine is the latest victim of what some have called â€œlights-out Londonâ€ where absentee owners push up property prices without contributing to the local economy. When Racine opened in 2002 the average price of a Knightsbridge home was Â£745,000; now it is Â£3.4m. There are an estimated 22,000 empty properties in London, partly a consequence of the cityâ€™s status as what the novelist William Gibson has called â€œthe natural home of a sometimes slightly dodgy flight capitalâ€. As Racineâ€™s story shows, some businesses are feeling the effects.
Absenteeism as a problem is peculiar to the smudge of â€œsuper-primeâ€ London around Harrods (although there are pockets elsewhere, such as Highgate). In a survey by the Empty Homes Agency last year, Kensington and Chelsea was found to have had a 40% annual increase in empty properties, the only area in southern England to show such an increase. Other boroughs on the list were mainly in poor parts of the north and north-west. The idea of the most expensive homes sitting empty is provocative in a city where any kind of property ownership is increasingly out of reach and politicians are moving to act.
Writing in the Independent, Tessa Jowell, who hopes to be Labourâ€™s candidate in the capitalâ€™s mayoral contest next year, called empty homes a â€œscandalâ€ and promised punitive taxes for their owners if she is elected. â€œToday in London hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in temporary accommodation, on social housing waiting lists, or years of saving short of buying their first home. At the same time the global super-rich buy London homes like they are gold bars, as assets to appreciate rather than homes in which to live â€¦ Absentee owners should live in the house they own or sell up â€“ or face uncapped charges until they do. No dodges or clever schemes to get round that.â€
The run on real estate has had indirect consequences, too. Some long-term residents, finding themselves in quiet areas, have themselves left in a kind of self-reinforcing loop. Businesses have been priced out of their offices, taking the lucrative expenses-lunch crowd with them.
â€œWe had customers who worked in investment or banking firms nearby who would come in once a week for the old-school, â€˜letâ€™s enjoy the afternoonâ€™ kind of lunch,â€ says Harris. â€œBut they have moved â€“ a short distance down the Kingâ€™s Road you can get good offices for a fraction of the price per square foot. I know one architect who moved to Holborn â€“ you wouldnâ€™t have thought it would be cheaper near the City. The lunch trade was probably half what it was five years ago. A friend says itâ€™s like a ghost town.â€
The testimony by the editor, Alan Rusbridger, gave a public airing to the debate over how to balance press freedom against national security concerns, an issue that became more acute once The Guardian began publishing material leaked by Mr. Snowden in June.
The American and British governments have said the disclosures, which detail how the National Security Agency and its equivalent in Britain, Government Communication Headquarters, gather vast amounts of data, damage national security and help hostile governments. Journalists and transparency advocates have countered that the leak spurred a vital debate on privacy and the role of spy agencies in the Internet age.
Mr. Rusbridger said Tuesday that the governmentsâ€™ measures â€œinclude prior restraint,â€ as well as visits by officials to his office, the enforced destruction of Guardian computer disks with power tools and repeated calls from lawmakers â€œasking police to prosecuteâ€ The Guardian for disclosing the classified material in news articles.
As he testified before a Parliamentary committee on national security, he faced aggressive questioning from lawmakers, particularly those of the ruling Conservative Party. Some asserted that The Guardian had handled the material irresponsibly, putting it at risk of interception by hostile governments and others. Others said the paper had jeopardized national security.
At one point during the hearing, Mr. Rusbridger was asked, to his evident surprise, whether he loved his country. He answered yes, noting that he valued its democracy and free press. After Mr. Rusbridgerâ€™s testimony, a senior British police officer, Cressida Dick, refused to rule out prosecutions as part of an investigation into the matter.
Since the revelations, newspapers, particularly those that have dealt with Mr. Snowdenâ€™s material, have also had to adjust to a harsh new reporting environment, security experts and journalists said, as governments and others seek secret material held by reporters.
â€œThe old model was kind of like your house,â€ said Marc Frons, the chief information officer of The New York Times. â€œYou locked your front door and windows, but not your desk drawer, even if it had your passport inside. In the new model, you have locks on everything.â€
The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal declined to comment about internal security arrangements.
But Mr. Rusbridger told Parliament that the newspaper â€œwent to more precautions over this material than any other story we have ever handled.â€
Senior Guardian editors were initially skeptical this year when asked to hand over their cellphones before discussing Mr. Snowdenâ€™s documents, said a person with knowledge of the reporting process, who did not want to be named discussing confidential security procedures.
That soon changed when they reviewed the information Mr. Snowden had supplied, this person said. The documents, they came to realize, would be of intense interest not only to the American and British governments, from which they were taken, but also to other governments like China and Russia seeking an espionage edge and hackers seeking to embarrass either government agencies or the publications reporting on the material.
Eventually the same editors insisted that meetings be held in rooms without windows and that any electronic devices nearby be unplugged. Computers that contained the information could never be connected to the Internet. And reporters who needed to consult with colleagues in other countries about the documents had to fly them over physically and meet in person, despite the extra costs. On one occasion, Mr. Rusbridger said, encrypted documents were sent via FedEx.