If you build flats next to a music venue, it’s not the flats that get closed down
It’s traditional to for us all to bemoan the loss of Soho – indeed, that’s almost a part of its character (I last reported on its rebuilding here.) Incredibly, things have got worse. Last night I was shocked to see what has been allowed to happen to the old London quarter, my stamping ground for over 30 years. Entire roads have now been all but wiped out, every building clad in scaffolding or simply left dead and empty, flooded drains and littered streets. My old office, the Dutch-gabled building in Bateman Street which I once owned, got sold to dodgy developers and has been left abandoned for over a decade. In fact there’s hardly a single property intact in that street anymore. Before, Westminster Council only allowed the development of properties one at a time, in order to preserve the fabric of these historic streets.
Perhaps they have a grand plan up their sleeve, but from the past corruption scandals in which they have been embroiled, none of us thinks so. There are four workers to every resident in Soho. The workforce earns its living in the theatres, galleries, design and effects companies, ad agencies and fashion houses. It was always an area for leisure and pleasure, dodgy, bawdy, a little disreputable.
Soaring property prices have flipped the former working quarter into a residential one, and residents don’t like noise. Soho was designed for mixed use. Property developers hate that term. If you build flats next to a music venue, it’s not the flats that get closed down. People still flock to Soho for a Friday night out. The result is that pubs and bars employ headset-monkeys to shove everyone behind ropes in an ostensible attempt to keep the roads clear – roads down which nobody drives anymore. In the half-hearted fashion for which it is infamous, the council failed to either pedestrianise or fully open streets, and solutions are being left to corporations. The pedestrianisation plans drawn up two decades ago would have allowed deliveries at a set hour in the morning and evening. This would have restored the narrow streets upon which so many people spill out.
When the bankers began moving out of Portobello Road, claiming it had lost its character, they couldn’t see that they were the ones who had destroyed it. Recent new flats built in Chapel Street Market brought complaints from residents about noise. Well, the clue was in the name of the street, or didn’t purchasers spot that?
In an inverse to the normal equation, Soho survived because it had more workers than residents. It was also protected by heritage groups that the council simply stamped flat and ignored when it came to the all-important matter of gutting rare buildings in favour of ventilation pipes from the new stations. The Crossrail project is partially responsible for the destruction of Soho, but bad planning, indecisiveness, kowtowing to big business and sheer greed have all taken their toll. The last decade has been the worst in the area’s history.
As Alex Proud pointed out in the Telegraph, the UK’s night-time economy is an enormous part of what makes our cities exciting, creative places to live. It’s worth £66 billion a year (around 6% of the UK’s GDP) and provides employment for 1.3 million people (10% of the workforce). Bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres have been drivers behind the renaissance in urban living and are a big draw for tourists. But a crucial part of this is the mix. If you have nothing but high-end flats that’s not a mix. It’s the dull bits of Paris or Manhattan.
There are still a few underground music clubs, bars and gay pubs, but the quirky alleyways and tunnels, the cinemas and cafes have been replaced by buildings purchased and then left empty. There’s a good article on Soho’s trials here. Of course Soho is not what it was – it never was. But when the dust settles this time, what will be left this time?