Creative London is in crisis 21.09.18

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Gentrification is forcing up property prices. Creative neighbourhoods are being taken over by wealthy landlords.  And there are fewer and fewer affordable studio spaces to rent. Does London’s history as a city of culture end like this? By Priya Khanchandani


Twenty-five years ago, Shoreditch was packed with affordable studios for designers, musicians and artists. Now, it is the world’s most expensive tech district, according to a report issued last year by Knight Frank estate agents, with rents almost as high as London’s prime financial district and double those of a comparable area of Brooklyn. 

In Hoxton Square, where there were once local enterprises and studios, there are now stock chains like Ladbrokes and Bill’s. In place of creative businesses are corporates who rent from real estate investors; insurance conglomerate Aviva, for instance, has purchased four sites for £8.5 million over the past three years. 

In Hackney Wick, warehouses that used to be occupied by artists are now being torn down and turned into flats. With no sense of irony, a site formerly occupied by a bagel factory and now being developed into flats markets the area as being ‘Hackney’s new creative hub’, showing how real estate gains value from the creative spirit it paves over. From top to bottom, graffiti covers the derelict Lord Napier pub next to the Overground. Along the rim, in bold white capitals, one side reads: ‘FROM SHITHOUSE TO PENTHOUSE.’ On the other, Mobstr has painted: ‘MEANWHILE IN EAST LONDON, LUNATICS DECORATE A BUILDING’, crudely satirising the marginalisation of artists in the capital.

Creatives are being driven out. And it is likely only a matter of time before the sentiments they have left behind are washed away too. In 2014, research issued by the Greater London Authority predicted the city would lose 3,500 affordable workspaces by 2019, defining affordable as £18 per sq ft or less per annum. As if the estimate wasn’t dire enough, the actual figure could surpass it. That means that at least a third of London’s affordable studio space will cease to be available to creative people by next year. And the spaces that are left are becoming more expensive. 

This situation has inevitably impacted on artists’ freedom. According to Anna Harding, director of Space Studios, a charity that provides affordable studio space, ‘artists are, generally, on incredibly low incomes throughout their lives. They may have one moment of being in the limelight but it doesn’t last forever. Therefore, artists need affordability throughout their lives’. 

Candida Gertler, who runs arts charity Outset, has seen the lifeblood of London’s arts scene begin to wane. ‘We are so alarmed because we are seeing Turner Prize winning artists and those who have represented Britain at Venice Art Biennale, as well as emerging artists coming out of Masters programmes, all struggling.’ 

Outset is working on initiatives to create more affordable studio space in London, including Studiomakers, which has brought together a group of private and public partners to sponsor creative workspaces. ‘If we don’t do something about this,’ says Gertler, ‘I think we could wake up one morning in a very sterile environment; a luxury consumerism-driven London. We know neighbourhoods like this – Mayfair, Knightsbridge – and it is fine to have two or three centres like this, but you don’t want to live in a city that only provides that.’ 

In response to sky-rocketing real estate prices, back in 2009 Charles Armstrong set up The Trampery, a social enterprise providing co-working space to creative businesses. Tenants range from a contemporary art gallery to book publishers, graphic designers, web designers and software start-ups. ‘I was already based in Shoreditch running a software business and from 2006 onwards it became very clear that there was a need for a new kind of workspace offer for small businesses,’ he says. ‘Every week I’d meet entrepreneurs who were relocating to the neighbourhood but had no interest in a five-year lease. People were working in their bedrooms or in cafes because there was nothing else on offer.’

Since then he has seen the situation worsen. ‘There is a kind of existential crisis for the [creative] community in London at the moment,’ he continues. ‘It is paradoxical because this is still one of the best cities in the world to be working in a creative practice.’ The Trampery’s tenth and largest site on Fish Island, at 50,000sq m with facilities for 500 people, will open later this year. Desks will be available at £200 a month and studios for £25 per sq ft per year. Half will be reserved for fashion businesses and the rest for other creative enterprises. 

But initiatives like this are the exception rather than the rule. The inevitable consequence of the lack of affordable workspace, along with the looming prospect of Brexit, is that creative people will leave London – and already are. On 9 August 2018, the mayor of London issued a report urging boroughs and developers to support artists by providing affordable spaces. ‘Our creative sector is one of the capital’s biggest strengths,’ Sadiq Khan’s official statement reads, ‘and, now more than ever, we all must do what we can to support artists and help the next generation to thrive’. The report points out that while London’s creative sector contributes £47 billion a year to the UK economy and accounts for one in six jobs in London, the threat of Brexit sees rising competition from cities such as Lisbon, Berlin and Amsterdam.

Migration from London to other parts of the UK is at its highest ever level, according to the Office for National Statistics. Londoners in their 30s are the largest cohort who are leaving; Knight Frank recently stated this was likely to be down to housing affordability. This new wave of migration has given greater prominence to cultural hubs like Manchester as well as transforming small seaside towns such as Whitstable and Margate – the birthplace of Tracy Emin and home of the Turner Contemporary –which has become known as ‘Shoreditch on sea’.

Graphic designers Bobby and Kate Evans made the move from Dalston to Margate three years ago after escalating studio costs priced them out of their area. They had been running design agency Telegramme since 2008, and living and working from Hackney for nine years. ‘About a year before we left London, we had to give up our studio and base our business at home,’ Bobby explains. ‘Everywhere I had had a studio, there were constant price changes and rent increases – it gradually built up over time.’ 

They were introduced to Margate by the artist Alex Chinneck, whose monumental architectural sculptures include a melting life-size house made of 8,000 wax bricks. When they moved, they found there was a buzz about the creative industries that they felt no longer existed in Dalston. And they soon found friends back in London contemplating similar moves. Since then, they have not only purchased a flat in Margate – something that was beyond their reach in London – but also rent ample studio space. ‘Just desk space would be £250 a month in London. For that price we have a whole studio, that is say 3-4m by 10m, where we can display our prints and keep chests to store our work.’

It’s been a similar story for designer and illustrator Roger Kelly, who runs design studio Crispin Finn with his partner Anna Fidalgo. The couple left east London for Margate three years ago. ‘Whether you are a designer, artist or musician or into journalism, writing or textiles – I didn’t realise quite how vibrant it was in terms of creative prospects,’ he says. With a client list built up over 11 years that includes brands like Lucozade, British Airways and the Guardian, their business is hardly a start-up, yet they left London for financial reasons. ‘We will always feel like Londoners, as London is an incredible, unique place, but the change for us has been hugely exciting – to move to a place that felt like it was becoming. Everything had started to become a little bit over-gentrified [in east London].’

The exodus of creatives may have injected new life into places like Margate, but it threatens to inflict irreparable damage to London’s eclecticism and cultural edge. Victorian novelist Walter Besant once famously said, ‘I’ve been walking about London for the last 30 years, and I find something fresh in it every day’. Yet today it is a place that appears to favour standardised corporates and chain shops. Bloomsbury was once where Virginia Woolf wrote, Soho was where David Bowie performed, and Kensington was were Francis Bacon kept his studio. What can be done to ensure London’s cultural history also has a future? 

City Hall has several initiatives in motion to try to mitigate the crisis. The Creative Land Trust will use a combination of public and private funds to purchase buildings to provide affordable workspace. Many of these are likely to be located in the new Creative Enterprise Zones, an effort to earmark small areas of London where creative activity will be supported financially. Eleven boroughs, from inner-city areas like Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Lambeth to suburban areas like Harrow and Hounslow, have been shortlisted and each has received a grant of £50,000 to develop its plans to become a Creative Enterprise Zone. The three chosen boroughs – to be announced this autumn – will have to show they can provide secure, permanent, affordable workspace; support to build entrepreneurial skills; local policies that are pro-culture when it comes to areas such as housing, technology and infrastructure; and socially inclusive places that strengthen links with marginalised communities. 

But are such top-down initiatives going to be sufficient to curb London’s creative rut? Indy Johar, co-founder of architecture practice 00 and serial entrepreneur, calls for a more radical rethink in the way that we organise the city. When I chair a Friday Late panel discussion with him and two other speakers at the V&A about the future of the city, I realise he has a point. 

‘When we talk about creativity we have to talk about what creates the conditions for creativity,’ he tells me. ‘It is no longer sufficient to deliver a creative strategy based on offering a few new co-working spaces and investment funds – we need investment focused on reducing the fundamental cost of living, along with the development of radical new institutions and the transformation of existing institutions focused on human development and creativity. 

‘I think it’s about the conditions – they go in every layer of the cake. For instance, university education is increasingly instrumentalised. When you come out with £50-60,000 of debt, you are instrumentalised to operate and think in a different way. This goes all the way through to the cost of rent, all the way to the cost of living.’

London cannot truly change unless there is a deeper structural shift that faces up to inequality and opens up a new conversation about its purpose. ‘London has been designed for high-speed transactions, efficiency of transactions, meeting people quickly,’ Johar adds. ‘Is it really refined and defined for a place for complex, reflective craft, complex, reflective creativity? No.’ 

His point that spaces for creativity should exist in an idealised, craft-oriented utopia, may be unattainable, but the underlying implication that London’s purpose needs to be reworked, before initiatives like cheap workspace can genuinely promote a pro-culture spirit, does hold water. Policies and initiatives that support creativity are helpful, but we need more than this. We need new forms of thinking to herald a London that democratises how we make places, narrows inequality and values reflexivity along with transactional efficiency. ‘I think the disparity between the social contract we discuss and the reality of people’s lives has become transparent,’ Johar explains. ‘That transparency thereby will, I think, catalyse new civil rights movements, which I think will actually challenge the notion of this disparity.’

Something drastic needs to change before creative London as we know it seeps away and all that’s left is identikit high streets, glistening corporate glass and the fading marks left behind by the graffiti of those who warned you this was going to happen. 

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