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Lecture | CMGI Brown Bag Seminar

'The New Empire Builders’: British Property Developers in the World at the End of Empire

Wednesday 29 September 2021
Johan Huizinga
Doelensteeg 16
2311 VL Leiden
2.60 (Conference Room)

This talk will survey the remarkable scope of overseas property development activity carried out by British property companies in the decades after 1945—a period when British developers were responsible for building office blocks, hotels, shopping centres, suburbs and industrial estates in cities all over the world. I relate these activities firmly to the British imperial project, with its long traditions of overseas investment, commercial enterprise and wealth extraction, but I also show how overseas property development in the post-1945 era was dependent upon domestic conditions back in Britain, where a business-friendly, lightly regulated urban planning regime gave rise to a powerful property development sector with close ties to the financial centre of the City of London. Crucially, these overseas development activities managed to outlast the end of formal empire and the moment of decolonisation in the 1960s, as powerful commercial and financial actors found new ways to generate wealth (and exploit overseas territories) in the post-imperial era. Indeed, in the 1970s, continental Europe (and Dutch cities in particular) became a major focus of activity and investment for British developers. The paper thus tracks the ways in which practices of city building interacted with both national and international political economy in the second half of the twentieth century, and sketches out some of the early history of the fully internationalised and financialised global property development business that operates today.

The paper presents findings from the author’s three-year British Academy Fellowship project ‘Commercial Property Development and the Remaking of British Cities, 1950-2000’ as well as indicating the future directions of this research into the business of city building, which turn towards globalised processes of urban development and transnational comparative treatments.

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