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?

5 comments on “If you build flats next to a music venue, it’s not the flats that get closed down”

  1. Bill says:

    Years ago I was in London, loved it and, of course, didn’t even really scratch the surface. Didn’t really stroll over much of it, either. Never occurred to me that so much of what I was looking at would disappear. Seems like any London of the past is just so laden with the spirit of countless millions, all of whom formed your city; their remnants in the form of streets, buildings, courts, what have you, embody their actions and desires and expectations. That is history!

    If I ever get back, well, what will I find?

    Thank you for your informative blog, and your Bryant and May books, which are so evocative and fascinating.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    In Manchester they are always rebuilding it.

    What happened here was they destroyed what drew people so people could move in, so people moved in and complained until what was left was lost too. What happens then the street become empty and that’s when they become more dangerous, the few that are left from the old days become even more hardened and secretive. Places close and there is little left to attract people, and then the rich that moved had moved in went to the suburbs (or the countryside to do a similar thing there.) and the centre was then left derelict. squatters and others moved in as prices dropped, underground scenes started to attract people that drew people and the whole cycle has started again…

    We are currently at the point where people are moving in but the balanced has not been tipped into losing what is interesting and exciting. there are still derelict sites before they start to convert existing places, sadly the pubs that had sprung up in parts of the suburbs and estates have now disappeared.

    This happens in many places, it’s just that Manchester has a long history of doing it, even before the industrial revolution which just increased the pace, and we tend to do it a lot quicker than most places. Times here are always interesting.


  3. Helen Martin says:

    “Times here are always interesting.” Most of us seem to be in interesting times just now, Wayne, and not in any sort of enjoyable way. I wish city planners would pay attention to what people like you say, because it is so true. The in-comers may say they like the ambience, the old buildings and so on but they don’t really. They like the -idea- of the old buildings but they don’t want to live in them because there are odd corners and drafts and not enough cupboards and no place to put the tv and the sound system so they “renovate” something, by which they mean totally gutting it and leaving only the facade.
    Whining again.

  4. Jan says:

    Wayne I didn’t realise Mcr had a build-destroy-reconstruct cycle prior to industrialization!

    Where did you find out about this? I’m not doubting you just be interested to read up about this subject. I was born and brought up near the city and must admit didn’t even think there was much to the place prior to the industrial revolution. I know the Romans had a presence there and I know Chat moss “burst” in I think the 1600s but am woefully ignorant about much of the medieval and post medieval history of the city.

    I can remember as a kid looking at a Canon ball which workers at a local construction site found in a ditch nearby to scrubland that was ( unsuccessfully as it turned out) built over and turned into a shopping centre. This brook / stream had a sort of grill gate as it dipped down to pass underneath the main Liverpool road and down towards the Irwell, the old river, to become a tributary to the short remaining section lying not too far from the Ship Canal.
    This canon ball was found there near the grill. I can remember touching this thing and looking at it. Talk about making an impression! That was when I first got it – that my town the place I was – from was physically connected into a bigger history. This cannon ball being from the time of the English civil war. You know when something just crystallize s for you. Wow! Can still recall how I felt even now.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    A record, made a few years back, says it all. It’s called ‘What’s Happened To Soho?’ by The Correspondents. I don’t live or visit London often, but Soho was always one of my favourite parts. I have very happy memories of taking a rather stuffy friend of mine to the Raymond Revue Bar for his 30th birthday, and we enjoyed it a great deal. My late mother was a Special WPC with the Metropolitan Police, in the early 1950’s, and she knew every inch of Soho like the back of her hand. I went to London with her in 1997, and it was an education. She knew every lane, ginnel, back alley and cut through. She knew where the drinking dens were, where the prostitutes used to ply their trade, and she said she always had a soft spot for most of them. She knew where there had been knifings, shootings, garrottings, even. Where bodies, or bits of them had been left. I got the distinct feeling that she loved the area. I think she’d weep to see it now.

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