THE BLOG

How To Save London's Soho

11/12/2014 17:02 GMT | Updated 10/02/2015 10:59 GMT

It's been fascinating and heart warming to see the extent of the protest at the temporary closure of Madame JoJo's club in London's Soho. The clubs Trannyshack and Burlesque nights are already Soho legends, epitomizing the area's diversity, edge and love of extravagant live entertainment. We look forward to their return.

It's interesting to go back in time and look at the obituaries for other clubs that have had a hedonistic reign in Soho: Billy's, Blitz, Gossips, The Wag, The Colony Rooms. What we see is an equal outpouring of sorrow at their departure and a wave of nostalgia about the 'old Soho'.

With the disappearance of these legendary clubs, are we watching the slow death of Soho as many in the recent press would have us believe? Or is it just more creative churn in the history of this extraordinary place?

I am interested in the creative future of Soho, so I am keen to understand the facts and complexity of what is really going on.

I have worked in Soho on and off most of my professional life. I now run SohoCreate, a new creative festival for London, put in place to champion the gorgeous, mouthy, glossy entertainment capital of the country. It's a place where there are four workers to every resident - A quarter of Soho's entire workforce, earn a living in the theatres, galleries, design and effects companies, ad agencies and fashion houses that make up this most creative square mile in the world.

Soho's creative credentials began 450 years ago when the first Huguenot refugees and crafts people were welcomed to this neighbourhood in the heart of London. Its creative life has been well documented, from the early performances of Jagger, Hendrix and Daltry to the birth of Spandau Ballet; from the place Dickens wrote Tale of Two Cities to the place television was invented. Soho's creative companies now win an average of two Oscars a year and are responsible for 20% of London's new creative jobs. Their collective turnover: £7.5billion.

In light of those extraordinary statistics, why is the narrative of Soho's decline so enduring?

Partly because Soho is to some extent, a myth itself. As Ian Board of the long departed (and much mourned) Colony Rooms said of Soho "It isn't what it used to be, but it never was what it was." Soho's seedy, sexy, taboo and often violent history makes it a great place to get nostalgic about. For many, Soho is hardwired into memories of their youth, the clubs, the all night drinking, the sex workers. For a large proportion of Londoners, past and present, thoughts of Soho still quicken the heart.

The narrative also endures because we love a good polarized story. The bad guys in this narrative are mostly the agents of change, the developers, landlords and council. The good guys are the low- and high-life good-timers, the drinkers, actors, singers and performers, reeling home in the early hours, arm-in-arm through their own rainy streets.

And of course, let's be clear, we hate the changes happening because we happen to hate change.

There are elements of truth in all the wringing of hands and outrage at the changing face of Soho, all triggered by the Madame JoJo's incident. Soho's glorious creative past and present is very definitely at risk. But the risks are many and complex, sadly not black and white at all.

Many critics have cited the developers and landlords as the enemy. We work closely with both Shaftesbury PLC and Soho Estates, two of the larger property owners in Soho. Indeed they are both supporters of our SohoCreate festival. I am therefore biased but also informed. Both companies care immensely about Soho and its creative future. Neither company is encouraging chains to move into Soho; both companies work hard to develop the place in keeping with its long history in fashion, entertainment and performance.

Soho Estates' plans to develop the building housing the current Madame JoJo's have been through the normal consultation process and approvals over the last two years. The refurbished building contains two nightclubs and a brand new performance space for Soho. Hardly a development that would be put forward by a company intent on profiting from ending Soho's entertainment tradition.

The dark star is also not Westminster City Council. I have found the team at Westminster City Council to be energetic champions of the creative industries, doing all they can to grow and protect the creative sector in Soho. Far from an intention to close live venues the trend is to licence more. This is evidenced by the fact that the number of Live Music Licenses has risen by 39% in the last five years.

2014-12-11-SohoLiveMusicLicencing.png

Now councils are notoriously fickle and larger ones often struggle to unify approaches across every department. But this joining up of a strategy for Soho across Westminster City Council is a key aim and opportunity for us all.

Here is the real issue.

Like many cities around the country - including Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle - London is at risk of hollowing out its vibrant and creative centre. As property prices inevitably rise around the country, even with low economic growth, the people who live and work in small creative spaces in our city centres can no longer afford to live and work there. A free market, without intervention, favours capital. If we fail to act, our artists will all live and work outside our cities and our performers will all commute into the clubs and theatres. As musician Tim Arnold and his celebrity supporters point out in their letter to Boris Johnson that appeared in the Times, we are all keen to prevent this happening, not just in London, but across the country.

The problem arises partly from the government emphasis on residential housing. As with many positive action policies there are unintended consequences. All over the country, small office spaces, perfect for creative companies are being converted into residential.

In the last five years in Soho over 30,000 sq. metres of office space has been lost against 60,000 sq. metres of residential space gained. That's over 500 flats created and over 3,000 creative working spaces lost. As much as £500million of creative industry turnover lost to Soho, a significant dent.

2014-12-11-SohoSquareMetreLossandGainSince2009.png

This is highly counterproductive. Very little of the housing created in Soho is affordable for most residents of the UK; it also takes potential creative space out of the market for 100 years.

I have spoken to Soho Estates on exactly this topic and here is their response -

Soho Estates remains keen to champion the cause of office retention in the area. The unnecessary imposition of residential use flies in the face of our business strategy. The last thing we wish to do is create luxury flats for sale to an overseas market. Current planning policy favours others with a short term view to do just that, thereby reducing the availability of space for the creative industries keen to base themselves in this fantastic part of London

As club owner Alex Proud pointed out in his article appearing in The Telegraph, high end residential can easily push out entertainment as well as business, as residents object to late licensing and club life outside their front doors.

We all want to protect Soho's character and reputation as a proving ground for new creative companies and performers. But we should be aiming at protecting its extraordinary status as the most creative square mile in the world with special planning status, not by trying to halt its development and evolution.

We need to have much more granular and local strategies for the creative development of our inner cities. Local authorities must be allowed more control within planning regulations over what these strategies are.

The real danger for Soho is a lack of unity amongst the different groups who care immensely about the place. Intervention is required and protection needed, but polarizing debate is seldom helpful and unlikely to generate solutions.

But then "All aligned on special planning status for creative square mile" is not nearly as juicy a story as: "Club closes - Soho over". Just like managing change in a complex environment is not as sexy as "developers gentrify Soho."

These are difficult times. There is not a conspiracy to destroy Soho. There is instead a powerful belief in its endearing greatness and a desire to build on that and keep it exciting, edgy and relevant. If we can do this together, we will help to keep UK creativity the best in world. If we fail, then we will be waving goodbye to much more than Madame JoJo's.