Over the last couple of weeks we've lost two iconic central London alternative spaces, the 12 Bar Club and Madam JoJo's, both victims of weak and uninspiring planning decisions and out of control property developers. Their loss raises genuine questions on the nature of our city and whether London is at risk of losing what makes it so special.
At Music Heritage UK we exist to promote, protect and preserve our popular music history and heritage. While I could spend this blog post detailing why these two locations should be saved from a cultural perspective, I think there are wider issues to consider which raise a number of vital questions on what we want London to be.
These two separate decisions are part of a larger trend in London towards the concrete, glass and steel development housing chain bars, shops and restaurants. The real questions which should be asked are how many of these do we actually need? What do we want our cities to look like? Why should independent businesses be the ones that suffer?
Our councils seem enthralled at the prospect of working ever more closely with developers to deliver identikit projects rebuilding swathes of the city in the process. Independent businesses are forced out to be replaced with retail units which house non-tax paying coffee shop chains, chemists which hire staff on zero hour contracts, and supermarkets which misrepresent their financial results. Research suggests that 95% of money spent within these larger chains leaves the local economy. Is this what we, as a society, really want?
Again and again this is replicated across central London. Like in the cartoons of yesteryear, a stroll from say the City to Oxford Street reveals an ever repeating background on loop as the unique, independent and curious is pushed out. Victoria Street, One New Change, Kings Cross, the only difference is in the name and the postcode.
When do we say enough is enough? Is the attraction of being only five minutes from a Leon or Pret a Manger (of which there are 187 outlets in London!) really that much of a draw? When has anyone said that they moved to London because they loved the fact that on almost every street corner there was a Tesco Express or Sainsbury Local? What initially attracted me to the city was its culture, arts and music scenes. That is what makes London special. Councils need to nurture the independent and alternative as it's what makes their boroughs desirable places to visit and live in. If we're not careful we risk London becoming a collection of identikit carbon copy neighbourhoods.
Critics will say that we, the public, want these kinds of 'shopping and leisure experiences' and that the British love retail brands... well they may be right, but this hugely underestimates the draw of the independent sector too. The success of the Lanes in Brighton, a unique shopping area full of small, quirky and lively retailers, is proof that people value alternative and unique shopping experiences. It's no surprise that the area has a number of vibrant nightlife spots too. Just for once, I'd love to see Councils across London aiming to replicate this independent success. However, it would mean less money for developers.
That developers are usurping bankers as one of the most hated professions should come as no surprise. One only needs to look at the double-speak provided by the those in charge of the Denmark Street development. The project was initially touted as a music friendly development aiming to enhance the music credentials of the area. Laurence Kirschel of Consolidated Developments (who are leading the scheme in Denmark Street) said in 2013, "The development will invest in local shops and not only safeguard, but reinvigorate the area's fantastic music and cultural scene." Yet here we are a few months later looking at the removal of the new music location on Denmark Street. With this kind of blasé attitude towards the public, street stakeholders, and supporters of the area, is it any wonder they are becoming so reviled?
What could be done to improve the situation? Small and independent businesses (and I include small music venues in this) could be afforded tax reliefs from central government. Local authorities could adapt local business rates, while relaxing restrictions and reducing the administrative burden on them. They could set up special zones within which indie businesses could be helped to prosper and spearhead initiatives like seasonal markets, summer festivals and other events to attract more visitors, shoppers and the local community. Much has been written about the success of Brixton Village in doing just that and it has turned a once-maligned area into a must-visit destination. Put simply, councils need a better understanding of what people want, what makes their locality unique, and how they might help nurture their local independent and cultural scenes.
We need an open discussion on what kind of city we want London to be. For too long the Mayor, councils and developers have bulldozed their way through public opinion and imposed their vision which seems to be based on increasing shareholder return for developers. It's time we made the case for the independent, alternative, cultural and vibrant London which adds so much colour to our lives.
There needs to also be a complete reappraisal of the relationship between developers and local government and for the latter to fight for planning which enhances their community and works with independent businesses, music venues, art galleries and other cultural organisations. Most importantly, we need this change in attitude now, before the London we love is forever lost.