The Blog

Save Soho Needs YOU!

It's not too late for people power to speak out. If you haven't already done so, please visit Save Soho's online site, and add your name to our campaigning... Now, more than ever, we need to make our voices heard, and keep Soho inclusive, not exclusive.

I just bought a new loo seat and I'm really bloody angry.

Not about the loo seat - it's a perfectly useable one, at a bargain price.

I'm angry because it came from the endlessly useful shop That's Andy on Berwick Street - and the shop, along with the others situated there, plus the offices above them, will be shut down in April so work can commence on the new hotel being built on the Kemp House site.

If ever there was a microcosm of what the Save Soho campaign is about (and I'm very proud to be on the board of this great lobbying group with Benedict Cumberbatch, musician Tim Arnold, and Stephen Fry among others), then That's Andy's eviction must be it.

For years, owner Andy worked on a Berwick Street market stall, selling everything from lighter fuel to pots and pans and soap and toothpaste. (You can read a full interview with him on Tim Arnold's invaluable Soho Heroes website). One day, 20 years ago, he was offered the lease on a shop, and decided to take the risk and move in. He's never looked back, and nor have we Soho residents. Pretty much any "household goods" need is met - he has yet to disappoint me, whether it's been a tea towel or knife sharpener for the kitchen, or a watering can for the garden or, as today, a replacement loo seat - and his prices are unbeatable.

And now he's being chucked out, so that yet another sign of Soho's gentrification can be established.

So far, he's been offered a handful of replacement sites - but they are either off the beaten track in Soho, or ridiculously expensive in terms of rent and rates.

It's not just this side of Berwick Street that is changing, either. In one of the few new bright spots on the street, My Place, the fabulous, characterful cafe and bar established recently by ex-Bar Italia barista Dini, I bumped into George from The Dining Plaice chippy next door.

There's been a fish and chip shop on this site since 1930 - American tourists actually seek it out in the way we might look for Washington's birthplace in the States. It's one of my favourite restaurants in Soho, as it's retained its pine-ceiling, plastic chairs and formica tables from the 70s, and serves classic chip shop food at great prices.

George has owned it since the early 80s. When he took on the lease, he also took on the flats above it, which happened to be occupied by working girls, as was the case with much of Soho at the time. Being a broadminded fella, George allowed his tenants to carry on regardless. If there was any trouble with punters, the police (whose station was more or less opposite) would come over and move them on. All this might sound odd to anyone who has only visited Soho as a bridge and tunneller (as they would say in Manhattan), but for those of us who live here, it was part of what made our unique square mile a real village, if a slightly louche one.

But the times they are a'changing, and George says it was around the time of the extremely questionable police raids of December 2013 on working girls' flats and sex establishments in Soho that he came under pressure to move the girls on or face the consequences of being their landlord.

Those raids just happened to coincide with the Westminster council meeting to approve the redevelopment of Walker's Court, perhaps the single most obvious attempt to massively alter and gentrify the neighbourhood.

So George is in no doubt about the pressures being brought to bear on the existing businesses and tenants in the area by the changes being pursued by the big landlords and Westminster Council, who together seem to want to turn Soho from a place of small local businesses into a place of luxury flats priced way out of the reach of local people, along with expensive, upmarket clubs and restaurants in place of affordable bars and venues.

But he says it is the current change of usage from market stalls selling goods to market stalls selling "street food" that has hit him hardest.

George's point is that if Westminster Council allows and even encourages this to happen, they must take into account the effect it is going to have on the established cafes and restaurants, who find it hard to compete with the prices and have a comparatively huge overhead with the rent and rates they pay.

A similar argument applies to Andy - if he's being driven out of his shop, something which been of amazing value and use to locals, then surely the council and landlords must work together to ensure that his options are not priced at a level that makes it impossible for him to move in.

I'm still bloody angry that something so useful to the community is being replaced by yet another posh hotel (which is also taking out local office space at the same time). And don't get me started on the Crossrail 2 proposals to knock down the Curzon Soho and build another station entrance in its place, or take over Soho Square for 12 years so it can be a construction hub.

But it's not too late for people power to speak out. If you haven't already done so, please visit Save Soho's online site, and add your name to our campaigning. Right now, following the closure of Madam JoJo's in Soho and the Twelve Bar Club in neighbouring Camden's Denmark Street, we are concentrating on the need to keep small entertainment venues open, thriving, and accessible to people of all incomes. But we are also making our voice heard about the Crossrail 2 proposals, and strongly support the absolute need to keep small businesses, whether shops or bars or restaurants, open for the benefit of both locals and visitors.

Now, more than ever, we need to make our voices heard, and keep Soho inclusive, not exclusive.