New York is an apple, London is David Bowie

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

New York is an apple, London is David Bowie

London’s success threatens the soul of the city, says the Head of Culture at City Hall.

By Justine Simons

I’ve lost track of the number of studies I’ve seen looking to resolve the question of ‘the London brand’. What is it? How can we monetise it? New York has an apple, what have we got? It’s all a bit circular.

But recently, I was reminded of a focus group’s response when asked who, if London were a person, it would be. The answer was David Bowie.

Which got me thinking about how many people expressed surprise at how deeply David Bowie’s death affected them. Even though we never met him, he was always present. When he wasn’t producing, we were anticipating his next move, confident of his perpetual curiosity and reinvention. His habit was to bring his creative experiments into the world and then wait for the rest of us to catch up. In our globalised culture, his was an authentic voice forging its own creative path. We didn’t realise how much we needed him till he was gone.

I can’t help feeling the same about London, this crazy, fabulous, wealthy, sexy, diverse, energetic World City that excites, exasperates and confuses; is complex and messy but also thrilling and incredibly successful – a chaotic playground that allows the talents of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Adele and Grayson Perry to flourish.

We are batting well above our weight on the global stage. Tate Modern kickstarted the rebirth of the South Bank, popularised visual art and is currently the most visited contemporary art gallery on the planet, with around 5 million visitors a year. Some 32,000 people go and see a show every night in the West End. From a standing start in 2003, the London Design Festival is one of the leading two global design events. London Fashion Week is no longer the poor cousin to Milan and New York. And such is the success of London Men’s Week that the Mayor of Milan announced that it is the patriotic duty of all Italian brands to remain in Milan – in other words, stay away from London!

We win lots of Oscars and Grammys and host major movie shoots (James Bond, Harry Potter and Star Wars): behind the scenes, our post-production talent is world-renowned. In fact, since the formation of Film London, whose job it is to persuade filmmakers to come here, business is up 30%. We’ve gone from being a nightmare city for filmmakers (red tape, infuriating permissions) to a top-tier filmmaking capital.

The creative industries generate £35bn for the London economy each year. Eight in 10 tourists say culture is the reason they come here; they spend £7.3bn and have an economic impact of £3.2bn a year. So culture is an essential part of this city and it’s a great success story… on the surface.

As London continues to grow – the population is currently at 8.6m people, and expected to hit 11m by 2050 – we are grappling with challenges that threaten our future. And although housing and transport get the headlines, it’s culture that is on the frontline.

Not a week goes by without a story about the creative exodus from London. The only standing item on our weekly team agenda at City Hall is ‘culture at risk’. We look at which music venue, historic pub, immersive theatre company or artist studio is about to lose its fight to survive and work out what we can do to help.

We’ve launched music venue rescue plans and artist studio taskforces; we’ve backed campaigns to save gay pubs, lobbied for artists’ pay, issued planning guidance for culture and published cultural strategies for the big regeneration zones like the Royal Docks. But what are the underlying pressures that make London currently such a difficult place for artistic and cultural production to thrive?

We all know that growth has put real pressure on property prices. If the average price of a house in London is £500k and the average salary of an artist is £10k, it follows that the average property in London costs 50 times the average salary of an artist. At the same time, it’s predicted that in the next five years London will lose 30% of artists’ studios.

This matters because London’s creative people are not only crucial to the city’s economy: they and their ideas also shape our identity and our city. Creative tribes have defined our city. In the 1960s, gritty Soho, with its trailblazing music venues and cabaret clubs, was home to talented artists like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Today, Shoreditch is the place where creativity, tech and business collide. In Peckham, artists who have taken over a crappy car park have arguably affected property prices more than any expensive marketing campaign could have done.

So artists are the advance party. They uncover disused warehouses and railway arches, paving the way for artisan coffee for the rest of us. But this model is not sustainable: the people who have created the value are pushed out by property prices.


Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

London is being remoulded before our eyes on. There are currently major developments on the go, for example, at Elephant and Castle, Greenwich Peninsula, Vauxhall Nine Elms, Barking and Dagenham, Woolwich Arsenal, Tottenham, Stratford and the Royal Docks. And it’s true that many of these have a cultural element. But the real trick is to keep the creative talent in the long term, nurturing an authentic cultural story as part of the big vision. Otherwise, frankly, the culture is just window dressing. Unfortunately, left to its own devices London has a habit of extinguishing creativity.

Almost all cultural activity needs a licence. And licensing is a system that is too often weighted in favour of the complainer. The Vibe Bar, instrumental in reversing the fortunes of Brick Lane, fell victim. And when developers decided to turn a vacant building adjacent to the iconic Ministry of Sound nightclub into a residential tower, the club knew they were in trouble. You’d think that if someone bought a flat next to a massive nightclub it wouldn’t be reasonable to then complain that they were in fact living next to a massive nightclub. But, no, even though the Ministry of Sound have fantastic soundproofing, there were fears that future complaints from incoming residents would lead to the loss of their licence. The club spent millions in a battle to protect its business, with the problem resolved after the Mayor of London intervened to persuade the developer to increase soundproofing on its new development – a landmark example of the ‘agent of change’ principle – and a sign of what can be done if we work in partnership.

Culture is not a statutory requirement, so at a time when councils need to make hard choices, and with 1% of the national budget going to culture, it’s hardly surprising that it often slips off the radar.

We have systems to protect physical culture – for example, the law that was passed in the 1970s to protect theatre buildings, which has undoubtedly saved many West End theatres (which generated £623m last year) from being turned into luxury hotels or flats. But we lag behind many parts of the world in our protection of what might be called intangible cultural heritage. This is important, because lots of London’s culture doesn’t happen in beautiful buildings.

Grassroots music venues, for instance, are often in unremarkable basements with sticky beer-covered floors, rather than in gold-rimmed theatres with antique chandeliers. But these grubby basements are world-renowned. London’s music venues were the birthplace of British rock and roll; the base for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and even Jimi Hendrix, as well as punk, the new romantics, Britpop, dance music, grime, and current global stars like Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and Adele.

Our music venues still perform a vital route for the emerging stars of the future, offering places for musicians to develop their craft in an intimate venue in front of a live audience. But without protection, over 50 music venues have been lost in the last few years.

And it’s not just music venues: take the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which was listed after an extensive campaign last year. As well as launching the careers of our leading drag artists and cabaret stars, it is the longest-surviving gay pub in London, dating back to the early 1860s. It opened 100 years before homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK. Precious little evidence exists of what life was like for gay people prior to decriminalisation, so the RVT is an essential social and historical asset. Many gay pubs and small venues have not been so lucky. There are currently a number of live campaigns aimed at saving others.

Ensuring our future as a world-class capital will require us to support a new generation of talent in order to protect our authenticity in the face of rapid growth, and make the city a place in which people want to live and work.

It’s hard to imagine London without culture – the creative buzz gone, artists decamped to Berlin, galleries closed, the West End sanitised and quiet, the buskers cleared off, the Fourth Plinth empty, debate silenced. Yet it’s easy to see how culture might get squeezed out of a city that is growing so fast and where improving transport, boosting the economy, solving crime and building homes are all pressing priorities. We are in danger of taking culture for granted in London.

Let’s not get mired in the debate about how we measure cultural value – we don’t need more evidence. We know that culture generates billions in cash, breathes life into run-down parts of town, and is the reason that tourists visit; it also gives us our unique character and bolsters our international standing. We know that it improves health and wellbeing, builds the skills and confidence of future generations, costs a fraction of other city budgets and makes life worth living.

Rather than sitting around getting depressed at the exodus, what can we do? It’s not just about money. We need to look at how existing structures and legislation can be adapted and at how we might nurture new partnerships that emphasise culture and creativity. We also need to look overseas to see if there are ideas we can use.

At City Hall, we have prioritised artists’ studios. Of the recent awards through the London Regeneration Fund, an unprecedented £5m has gone to creative workspaces. Our Music Venues Taskforce produced a Grass­roots Music Rescue Plan, with a number of sensible ideas including the establishment of a Night Time Mayor. Amsterdam and Berlin have one already and the positive results are clear to see: having someone to champion the vibrant evening life of the capital seems a no-brainer. We are also backing the introduction of the ‘agent of change’ principle (whereby a developer next to a music venue has to pay for soundproofing) to make sure venues and pubs aren’t suddenly vulnerable to licence revocation when residential blocks spring up next to them.

In the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, world-class culture will be on tap all year round when the V&A, Sadler’s Wells and the Wayne McGregor studio are up and running. The Cultural Vision for the Royal Docks illustrates the potential when creativity is embedded from the start and with a view to the long term.

We continue to support our major creative industries showcases – London Fashion Week, London Design Festival and the newly established London Games Festival – to help us maintain our position in these areas.

London is also learning from the World Cities Culture Forum, a ‘Davos for culture’ that brings together 33 global cities committed to putting culture at the heart of urban policy. We are not alone in facing the challenges of globalisation and growth and we can share solutions with our counterparts across the globe.

Aside from the economic contribution of culture, people really care about protecting the aspects of the city that give it character and ‘authenticity’. Research tells us that visitors want experiences that are off the beaten track, that only the locals know about. They want ‘real’ London not ‘brand’ London. This is the case whether they are visiting a major museum or finding a secret cinema in an old warehouse, searching out an underground gig or discovering an ancient music hall. Authenticity is more than just a nice idea: it’s the heart of our business model.

And the key to authenticity? Creative people.

London’s USP is people and ideas: it follows that our success is dependent on creativity. It’s not enough to have good transport and a decent health service. London also needs a soul. It needs its creative people, the outside-the-box thinkers and innovators who help give London oxygen and a genuine personality, who break the rules and shape our future and our identity.

We need to reposition culture at the heart of the urban system. That means reforming the licensing system so that one grumpy complainer can’t shut down a vibrant venue, and embedding culture in the planning system in a way that means that creative workspace is championed as a planning gain priority.

If we want this city to thrive, culture must become a formal objective in regeneration and economic development policy. Let’s get imaginative with business rate relief for small creative businesses, and update heritage protection so that it saves character as well as bricks and mortar.

And why not be bold and make culture a statutory provision? Even if those ever-decreasing budgets can’t support art for its own sake, culture can deliver against most government targets with depth and sophistication. Let’s embed it across the system. We could and should also reframe the damaging London vs the regions debate: rather than arguing over a tiny pool of arts cash, we could recognise that we are all part of one creative ecosystem and think about how we can grow the pie instead of fighting over a piece of it.

Let’s support the talent pipeline all the way along its route. And while we’re at it, let’s rethink our notion of cultural leadership and build a new kind of civic leadership for culture in this city. We need cultural leaders not only in our galleries and theatres but also in our transport and health system, in planning and schools, in housing and at the heart of regeneration and public space. And we also need politicians and business leaders who are committed to the idea that culture and creativity are the oxygen of this city. We need culture more than we realise. And we will miss it desperately if we let it go.