Soho at risk of turning into an 'upmarket housing estate', art industry figures warn

Exclusive: The ‘square mile of Soho’ is ‘at least as important as the square mile in the City’, the Government has been told

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The Independent Online

Actor and writer Stephen Fry, film director Lord Puttnam, digital entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox and other leading figures in the arts world have written to the Government to warn that Soho – “the most creative square mile in the world” – is at risk from developers putting up luxury flats at a “terrifying rate”.

They said that the area’s role as the creative heart of the capital faced an “imminent crisis” because of a “massive loss of office and studio space”.

Fashion designer Paul Smith, film director Sir Alan Parker, theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh as well as landlords and Soho politicians made the claim in a letter to the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, citing figures that show Soho has lost 30,000sq m of office space and gained twice that amount in residential buildings since 2010.

Soho Create, an umbrella group for the area’s creative industries which is behind the letter, estimated that office space for 3,000 people had gone, resulting in a loss of £500m in annual turnover.

“The creative clustering that makes this such an extraordinary economic and cultural engine is under threat,” said the letter. “There is a very real danger that we will erode the creative fabric of Soho past the point we can ever rebuild it.” Philippa Roe, the Conservative leader of Westminster Council, and John James, the managing director of Soho Estates, one of the area’s biggest landlords, also signed the letter.

Soho Create chief executive Tom Harvey said: “The signatories of the letter fear for the long-term future of Soho... as planning guidelines are relaxed and there will be no ability for local authorities to refuse planning applications for the conversion of offices into residential.”

Mr Harvey claimed that “the massive loss of office and studio space is hugely damaging both economically and culturally” because Soho companies – such as Framestore, the Oscar-winning visual effects company behind Gravity, and ad agency M&C Saatchi – generate around £7.5bn a year.

The “square mile of Soho” is “at least as important as the square mile in the City,” added Soho Create. Emotions have been running high after Soho cabaret club Madame JoJo’s was abruptly shut last autumn while a number of music shops and venues on nearby Denmark Street, known as Tin Pan Alley, face closure.

Advertising guru Sir John Hegarty, chairman of Soho Create, said: “Soho is the most creative square mile in the world and we are in danger of turning it into an upmarket housing estate.”

Full text of the letter

Dear George Osborne and Eric Pickles

We write about an imminent crisis for London’s creative businesses.

The square mile of Soho and its surrounds is the most creative in the world.  In its way it is at least as important as the square mile in The City.  Soho is responsible for 10% of the country’s creative turnover. 20% of London’s new creative jobs are based here. A quarter of Soho’s entire workforce is in the creative sectors.  It is unique and valuable.

In the last four years Soho has lost 30,000 square metres of office space and gained twice that amount in residential.  The creative clustering that makes this such an extraordinary economic and cultural engine is under threat as a result.  There is a very real danger that we will erode the creative fabric of Soho past the point we can ever rebuild it.

We appreciate the need for housing in London, but the massive loss of office and studio space is hugely damaging both economically and culturally.  Soho has recently lost working space for 3,000 people and, therefore, up to £500million in turnover as a result of the shift to residential. The majority of new residential is also expensive and only suitable for portfolio investment or very high net worth individual purchases.

The City Council, local property developers and the creative industries all agree.  It is essential that we are able to address local cluster needs within the planning approval process.  Currently there are no grounds for resisting applications for conversion of office use to residential.

Any diminishing of the scale and impact of the creative industries in Soho will be a massive loss of business and prestige to London and the whole UK.  We ask that you urgently address this.

London is the creative capital of the world and we must do more to ensure creative people and companies remain at its centre. The creative industries are growing rapidly and should be seen as a vital and energetic part of our cities.  They generate every form of wealth.

Importantly, therefore, we are all keen to know what policy commitments you are able to make in your forthcoming manifesto to protect creative industry space in London and, by extension, the UK as a whole.

Yours sincerely

Nick Allott OBE

Stephen Bayley

David Evans Chairman The Soho Society

Stephen Fry Chairman of Save Soho

Sally Greene OBE

Tom Harvey MBE

Sir John Hegarty

John James MD Soho Estates

Pat Joseph CCO The Mill

Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho CBE

Ian Livingstone CBE

Sir Cameron Mackintosh

Steve Marmion Artistic Director Soho Theatre

Sir Alan Parker CBE

Lord Puttnam CBE

Cllr Philippa Roe, Leader of Westminster City Council

Sir William Sargent

Sir Paul Smith CBE

Sir John Sorrell CBE

John Spearman Chairman Framestore

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