London is dying

December 11, 2015

London is dying.

 

You might not think so from the ever-spiralling property prices and the record number of cranes on the skyline, but creatively, artistically, socially and culturally, London is on its knees.

 

Soaring property process mean that people in creative professions who earn low incomes from day jobs, fifty quid for a gig here or a commission there, simply can’t afford to live in the capital any more, and like anyone else in a low-paid job, they’re moving out.

 

But there’s less to keep them here anyway.

 

London is supposedly recession-proof. It’s relentlessly busy. And yet, the number of live music venues in the city has dropped 35% in the last eight years. Fifty venues, including legendary names such as the Astoria, the Marquee Club and the Water Rats – where Oasis played their first ever London gig – have gone for good, leaving just 88 venues remaining in the city. Many of these are on the brink.

 

The rate of pub closures in the capital is higher than anywhere else: in the year to July 2015, 550 pubs closed – more than a ten a week. The average number of pub closures across the UK stands at 29 per week, and ten of those are in London and the South East. The most affluent part of the country is seeing pubs disappear more quickly than anywhere else.

 

Club culture is doing no better. The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), which represents venues, says there were 3,144 clubs in the UK in 2005. Ten years later, there are 1,733. Iconic London clubs such as Herbal in Shoreditch, the Cross in Kings Cross and the Fridge in Brixton are among the casualties.

 

Some people don’t seem too worried by this. They shrug and tell us we should respect the market, and that if market forces mean entertainment and socialising venues can’t cut it any more, they have to go. It’s a cruel, callous point of view, but in today’s political climate there’s nothing unusual about that. However, there are two serious flaws to this nasty response.

 

The first is that a great deal of the time, it’s not market forces that are doing this – at least not in the transactional way Adam Smith had in mind when he invented the doctrine capitalists think they still follow.

 

Many of the places closing are busy and profitable, but they close anyway. The Crossrail development wiped out a fistful of London clubs at a stroke. With others, the end of a lease saw landlords jack up the rent to levels that don’t work for anything but corporate redevelopment. The pressure for housing redevelopment, with blocks of flats being built right next to a late night venue, means noise complaints are killing pubs, clubs and live venues alike.

 

This last point seems particularly unfair. When a developer builds a new apartment block, they’re perfectly aware of the noise coming from the venue next door. Yet if they fail to provide adequate noise insulation in their build, it’s the club, hall or pub which has always been there which has to curtail its activities.

 

The people buying flats in these multi-million pound developments often tend to be less community-minded than those who have been in the area a long time. A property affected by venue noise can sell at a substantial discount to similar properties elsewhere, so it’s common practice to buy such a relative bargain, then do all you can to get the noise source closed down. In 2014 the Publican’s Morning Advertiser ran a story about one pub that cancelled a proposed live music event amid fears of complaints from neighbours. The neighbours complained about the noisy live music anyway, even though it never happened, and the pub suffered restrictions in its license thanks to a campaign of lies.

 

So it’s not just capitalism in play: if anything, it’s interference with the market that’s causing pubs and venues to close.

 

But there’s also a second, deeper problem with the ‘it’s just the market’ argument.

Last year, the Spirit Pub Company announced that the Black Lion in Bayswater, a 300 year-old coaching inn, was to be sold for redevelopment into flats. Now, if the pub wasn’t making a profit, that’s regrettable but understandable. But the Black Lion clears a profit of £700,000 a year. This wasn’t enough for Spirit, who earned £27 million by selling it to the developers.

 

I understand that we live in a society that puts financial gain above all other considerations. But there’s a big difference between profit being the most important thing, and profit being the only thing that has any value at all. If profit is the only thing that matters, let’s turn everything that isn’t already a block of luxury flats into a block of luxury flats! Why stop at pubs, clubs and music venues? Let’s turn all the schools, libraries, art galleries, parks, churches, theatres, town halls, hospitals, prisons and nurseries into luxury flats too. We can follow the current trend and in every new development give the residents a choice between Tesco Metro, Costa Coffee and Pret A Manger, with the odd branch of Leon or Nando’s thrown in in case they want to do something other than sit at home watching Netflix or looking at cat pictures on Facebook. Let’s do that, and then let’s see how pleasant London is to live in. Let’s see what happens to property values then.

 

We need to measure our society in terms of social and cultural wealth as well as financial. If we don’t, this is what the future will look like. It’s already here in parts of London that were culturally vibrant just a decade ago, and now are soulless canyons of steel, glass and brands.

 

If you don’t live in London, I could forgive you for reading this and thinking, “Fine by me, London’s shit anyway.” And maybe the exodus of young creative people will help fuel more vibrancy in Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Liverpool, each of which already feels more culturally exciting than London does now.

 

But what happens in London tends to hit other places eventually. Redevelopment is happening everywhere, as are noise complaints, rent hikes and tighter licensing restrictions. There is a fight back, and the entertainment industry is winning some important cases on things like putting the responsibility for noise insulation on the developer. But nowhere is safe. The Campaign for Rock Against Redevelopment has to start now.