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Agora phobia: Athen's privatisation of Hellinikon

After the disaster of 2008, the vultures close in to feast on Athens

In Iain Sinclair’s book, Ghost Milk, a trip around the modern-day ruins of Athens’ Olympic sites, prompts one of Sinclair’s hosts to comment: ‘We are used to living among ruins.’ Hellinikon, the huge site of Athens’ former airport − and later home to a clutch of Olympic venues − has lain empty and deserted since the Games left town 10 years ago.

Ghost Milk, which is subtitled Calling Time on the Grand Project, was published in 2011. At that time, it seemed as though the ‘Grand Project’ model, based on ‘property-led’ development, was in its death throes, killed off by the financial crisis. These very large schemes depended on the borrowing of large amounts of money by property companies, but as banks refused to lend activity dried up, leaving sites empty and deserted.

In the UK, Britain’s own Olympic project stalled with Lend Lease, the company behind the Olympic Village, unable to borrow the necessary funds required. Considered, like the banks, too big − and too important − to fail, the Olympic Village was bailed out by the taxpayer to the tune of nearly £6 billion. But around the rest of the UK, Europe and North America, development stalled as a slew of other projects were abandoned.

So, how is it that just a few years later, Greece, the country hit hardest by the financial crisis, is embarking on one of Europe’s largest-ever developments? An enormous 620-hectare scheme, on the Hellinikon site, is touted as a Greek version of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. According to PR reports, the resort and casino complex will power the ruined country to renewed growth.

It is precisely the scale of the Greek crisis which has paved the way for the plans, with the so-called ‘troika’ of Europe’s Institutions − the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission − enforcing a highly controversial privatisation programme on the country, which is witnessing sell-offs ranging from utilities to an extensive list of national property assets, such as the Hellinikon site. In her book The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein talks of ‘disaster capitalism’, whereby the aftermath of economic and political crisis is seen as the perfect opportunity for the roll-out of extreme neoliberal policies. The wholesale privatisation programme in Greece is a perfect example.

‘The privatisation programme in Greece is a perfect example of disaster capitalism’

As for the new owners of this former public land, they are part of a new breed of development consortium which has emerged since the financial crisis, comprised of billionaire investors and sovereign wealth funds. According to a report by estate agents Savills, it is wealthy individuals who have rescued development from the financial crisis. ‘Since the debt crisis they [private individuals] have stepped into the property deals that corporate bankers have deserted,’ the report states. In 2012, about 35 per cent of global big-ticket deals − defined as $10m-plus − were only possible because of private funding. ‘The willingness of private wealth to take the place of debt finance, or to take a high-risk development position, is now making the difference between deals done or schemes mothballed,’ the report says.

Lamda Development, controlled by Greece’s powerful Latsis family, is leading the Hellinikon consortium, which includes the Chinese Fosun Group and Abu Dhabi property company Al Maabar. For a taste of what this latest breed of neoliberal development will resemble, observers need only look to London and the raft of new schemes completed and in the pipeline. For example, the taxpayer-funded Olympic Village has been sold to Qatari Diar, the property branch of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. The Shard, London’s tallest building, is 95 per cent-owned by the state of Qatar and the luxurious gated complex One Hyde Park is owned by a joint venture between Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, Qatar’s former prime minister, and the Candy Brothers. As for the jewel in the crown of London’s plans, this is the proposal for a new ultra-high security US Embassy in south London, complete with a moat.

While the US Embassy is alone in including a moat among its contemporary fortifications, all of these schemes boast defensible architecture to the point of almost militarised levels of security. Entirely privately owned and privately controlled these new spaces forbid the range of activities and behaviours routinely banned in privately owned spaces, from cycling and rollerblading to taking photographs, filming and, crucially, political protest.

In Greece, a country with its proud tradition of public space dating back to the agora of Classical times, it is galling to many that the privatisation of Hellinikon is the first of many large-scale privatisations planned, with negotiations also under way to sell off Greece’s ports, including the famous port of Piraeus. The outcome will be a rollback of democratic space, which reflects the undermining of democracy in the country, as decisions by the troika are imposed upon a nation in crisis.

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