Time to fight back: six ways to defend London culture from property development

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ACT UP's iconic SILENCE = DEATH image, used in the Aids activism group's campaigning in the 1980s and 90s

The iconic image of AIDS activism created by the SILENCE = DEATH Project, also used by ACT UP in the 1980s and 90s (© SILENCE = DEATH Project)

Cities change. That’s why we love them and that’s what they’re for.

They’re the places where loads of people from all kinds of backgrounds interact in complex ways yielding unpredictable results. Over time, populations come and go, new ways of making money and having fun are invented and discarded, areas get rich and poor, fashionable and passé. To fight the fact of change in cities is to defy the nature of urban life.

But that doesn’t mean all change is good.

As I’ve written before, the changes currently sweeping across London – and other places too – are of a different kind to the constant variation and fluctuation that cities rely on. High-end property development now takes up huge swathes of central London space, supposedly for residential and commercial purposes. What kind of commerce? Almost never the kind created by Londoners for Londoners. Often the kind that avoids paying tax or giving workers job security or fair terms.

And often this space isn’t used for its stated purpose at all. Flats stand empty and storefronts remain vacant because the money to be made from operating them is piffling compared to their abstract real-estate value. To a large extent, this kind of development isn’t about using urban areas at all. That’s what makes it different.

City space is now being treated not as a physical location in which people live, work and play, but as a form of capital to be traded for profit.

If a patch of square footage is worth more on the international market than a local tenant or leaseholder is able to stump up, then the local is out on their ear. However much value they might have added to the neighbourhood, the city or the world, if that value can’t be measured in pounds, forget it.

The logic at work is simple. Money talks, the rest is silenced. It’s the same logic that allows governments to judge people’s worth by whether they help ‘grow’ or ‘drain’ the economy. But market growth for its own sake is a nihilistic creed that tends to exhaustion. It uses up all the resources to hand – trees, oil, city space, whatever – until they are gone.

This kind of change doesn’t spark new life. It’s not mutation, which cities thrive on, but necrosis. It’s a death cult wrapped in steel and glass.

Luxury property development acts on London’s living culture as a virus acts on its host organism. More and more of the city is left to wither into jealously hoarded dead zones, areas of inactivity that diminish the vitality of their surroundings while pushing up the cost of actually living, working and playing in the space that remains. And any time there’s a buck to be made, the axe falls.

So, every week another seminal, beloved and – this bit is crucial – still-vibrant part of London culture gets (or is threatened with) the chop. Madame Jojo’s. The Joiners Arms. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The Buffalo Bar. The Vibe Bar. The 12 Bar. The George Tavern. Earl’s Court. Fabric. The Coronet. Denmark Street itself. The venerable is vulnerable as never before.

But so is the new. Look at how street art – work whose whole purpose depends on its location amid the buzz of city life – is now habitually carved from the walls for private sale. Could there be a nicer illustration of the grotesque strip-mining of urban culture? It is literally anti-social behaviour – an assault on the fabric of society.

Market forces simply don’t care about culture. That’s why it feels as if ours is being slashed and burned around our ears.

This change has been in the offing for years, often jollied along by unholy alliances between property developers, local councils and the mayor’s office. But the effects have hit especially hard in recent months. As Richard Godwin recently suggested in the Evening Standard, the law now enables easier changes of use and favours new residents’ interests over existing entertainment venues.

On the ground, the closure of numerous much-loved venues has been presented as a fait accompli. Many of us are in shock. We feel angry and victimised and impotent. It’s almost as if our loved ones are dying all around us and we don’t know why or what to do about it.

In the 1980s, loved ones started dying all around for real. Actual human beings, not venues or businesses – a level of trauma and suffering far above what’s inflicted by property development. HIV is a real virus, not a metaphorical one, and I am not equating the loss of culture to the loss of life.

And yet I think it might be instructive to compare what happened at the onset of the AIDS crisis to what is now happening to London culture – not for the sake of sensationalism but because it might just offer some strategic guidance. That, after all, was a situation more dire than this one but, eventually and at great cost, life found a way.

It’s tempting to despair – to feel helpless or hopeless. But there are ways we can start to fight back.

I recently rewatched the documentary How to Survive a Plague, which recounts how New York’s LGBT community pushed back against the indifference and hostility with which authorities and mainstream culture initially treated AIDS patients and their allies. It’s basically the story of ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, the group that spearheaded the successful campaign to develop treatments that could stop HIV from killing.

In the first place, they got together to share information and resources and develop organisation and strategy. Then they deployed striking images like the one at the top of this post, conceived stunts like kiss-ins and cathedral takeovers, and developed talking points to make their case through the media. And, vitally, they became fully informed about the latest experimental research into HIV treatment, and about the funding and drug-licensing bureaucracies that governed how that research was implemented.

These are lessons that can be applied in confronting the luxury-property challenge to London culture. We need to start treating this as a concerted assault on the values of the city’s culture – a force whose blind appetite for growth shares the Darwinistic nihilism of a virus. We need to assume that everywhere is vulnerable and act accordingly.

We need to unite and organise. We need to attract popular support. And we need to offer constructive proposals for change.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that I have anything like a fully developed strategy for tackling this problem. I just want to offer some subjects to consider – ideas that might help us move from despair to resolution. The challenge demands far more work than this. And it demands far more work than clicking ‘like’ or signing an online petition. But if we want independent London culture to survive, the work must be done.

So, here are six starting points…

1. Come together
Of course, many people have already done just this to push back against development schemes: creating petitions, lobbying councils and MPs, holding demonstrations.

These actions usually focus on a specific site, because they’re spurred by passion for a place people love. But we need to recognise these instances as symptoms of one underlying cause: the fact that the scales are weighted in favour of schemes that generate huge profits against those that promote living culture. Our best hope for progress is to address that underlying cause.

We can start to do that by uniting to show solidarity and share resources, information and tactics. No group that forms around a newly threatened venue needs to feel alone, nor to reinvent the wheel when it comes to campaigning knowhow. Each group has things to teach and learn from each other.

2. Make wider alliances
What can we learn from successful campaigns such as Long Live Southbank, which saved the Southbank undercroft skating area, or the Ivy House pub in Nunhead, which staved off redevelopment to become a cooperatively-owned venue?

What alliances can be or have been made with members of planning departments, local councillors, MPs, GLA members, lawyers, architects, heritage experts? There are often people within existing structures of power who want to do the right thing – but might need a nudge or an excuse.

What about other parts of public life, beyond independent cultural venues, that are threatened in the name of austerity? What links can we make with groups defending public housing, such as at the New Era estate, or libraries, daycare centres or places that help vulnerable people?

There are millions around the city and the country who share the same basic indignation at such closures. We’re stronger together.

3. Get informed
Knowledge is power. ACT UP had to become scientists. We have to become experts in planning regulations and property law – as well as our own back yards.

The plans for redevelopment of Madame Jojo’s have been available for over a year; the fact that they came as a shock should serve as a wake-up call. Who actually owns and manages the venues you care about? What are their intentions? Have they applied for planning permission to alter the site?

How do property companies, council planning departments and the mayor’s office actually manage London redevelopment? Where are the existing opportunities for modifying, postponing or thwarting plans? What exactly does the law say?

4. Be proactive
It’s too risky to wait until you hear that a place you love is under threat. By then, the odds are stacked against you. Make sure owners and landlords know you care about venues and are willing to fight for their future – whether that’s with or against them.

Find out how your council’s planning and development strategies are set and get involved.

Join any campaign you think is worthwhile so you can learn skills and strategies to use if your own beloved venue is threatened.

Keep an ear to the ground for opportunities to open new spaces – ideally in properties owned outright by a sympathetic landlord.

Consider applying to register a venue with your local council as an asset of community value (ACV). ACV status means a venue can’t be sold from under the community’s nose – they have to be informed and have a chance to bid for it. It brings no guarantees but it might be the best we have at the moment. It could even form the basis of a campaigning tactic – perhaps we should apply for ACV status for every single independent cultural venue in London. If nothing else, it would demonstrate the scale of the problem and the strength of feeling.

5. Make a scene
Property is a form of capital – but so is spectacle. To win popular support, we need to make sure people know about the threat to independent culture and understand why it matters.

It might be useful to develop a cohesive campaigning identity – a brand, to use the commercial term – and striking iconography. The SILENCE = DEATH image is powerful because it looks good and has a simple message while also evoking the history of oppression represented by the pink triangle.

The most effective way to attract mainstream attention is to make a big, eye-catching scene – something that attracts photographers, shares well on social media, and makes people think, laugh, get angry or ideally all three. Recent actions like this include the funeral procession for Madame Jojo’s, the mass face-sitting outside Parliament to protest new porn censorship guidelines, and ACT UP London’s dumping of horse shit outside UKIP’s Croydon offices, after which UKIP was evicted from the building.

The more imaginative such actions are, the more people respond to them. And those are skills the creative community has in spades. At the least, no culturally notable venue’s closure should go unmarked. Spectacles of mourning make public these spaces’ loss and the feeling attached to them.

Consideration should also be given to peaceful protest and direct action at the offices of property developers, council planning meetings and other sites away from the cultural venues themselves. Such institutions tend to hate bad press, especially if it makes them seem weak or vulnerable to superiors, shareholders or investors, or ties their name or logo to a toxic antisocial message.

Perhaps as a start we could try to make ‘luxury’ a dirty word…

6. Develop a set of clear demands
This is the biggest challenge of all – the move from reacting against an unjust situation to articulating and strategically pursuing a clear set of goals. ACT UP managed this. Occupy didn’t.

It remains to be seen whether we can develop a longterm strategy for preserving at least some of the conditions that have allowed the city to contribute so much to the way the world lives, works and plays.

Whatever the future might hold, we know that right now we face an enormous challenge just to keep that culture alive. And the first steps to doing that are to join with, inform and inspire each other.

Luxury kills. Don’t die of ignorance. And long live fruitful mutation!