London’s exodus offers a stark warning to other UK cities: your culture is at riskClick here to view original web page at www.theguardian.com
For the first time in half a decade, more people are leaving London than are moving to it. Net migration away from the capital has exceeded 80,000 people a year. So why are people leaving the city? And does it really matter?
A lack of affordable, spacious and good-quality housing has of course been a push factor in the exodus from the city. So for some leavers, it’s the allure of the “bargain” family house in the provinces. Others are being forcibly expelled, moved and dumped by their councils to cheaper accommodation in less affluent parts of the country. For others still, more realistic housing costs offer breathing space from the relentless hustle that is making rent in the capital.
But it’s not just housing. London has also become increasingly culturally sterile. Scores of LGBT venues have disappeared. Noise complaints and Operation Condor have sounded the death knell for other music hotspots, with 400 venues closing their doors in the capital in the last decade. The Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) has emerged to directly defend the night-time economy from the ravages of regeneration and “luxury” flat developments. The infamous King’s Cross nightclubs – Bagley’s, the Cross and the Key – have been replaced by Granary Square, a privately owned public space owned by UK and Australian asset management firms and pension funds. Here, you can “eat, drink, shop”, unless – of course – you are refused right of entry. Or you want to take a photo.
All of this points to a process that sociologist Saskia Sassen calls “deurbanisation”. Numerically, this means haemorrhaging residents, while metaphorically it relates to the increasing hollowing out of the social and cultural vibrancy of the city. The very things that make up its fabric – the messiness, unpredictability and diversity of urban life – are stripped away. All that’s left is Costa Coffee, Pret-a-Manger and hoardings advertising buy-to-let investments, illustrated by white couples laughing and sipping champagne.
If this migration away from London is a canary in the coalmine for the vitality of the city, it is doubtful that many of us outside the city will shed many tears. For too long, brain drain to the capital has deprived the rest of the UK and its local economies of graduates and young people. Capital spending on infrastructure in London is 10 times higher than the East Midlands. HS3, the flagship railway line for the construction of the “northern powerhouse” hangs in the balance, while electrification plans for Sheffield and Cardiff have been shelved. Despite steps to remedy the inequality, Arts Council funding remains extraordinarily weighted in favour of London, and of the “high” culture institutions that are based there.
What places such as Margate, Birmingham and Manchester offer, in contrast, is an opportunity to eke out space for their own grassroots cultural activities. Such activities depend on two things: cheap living costs that enable people to commit time to unremunerated cultural activities, and low-cost space for studios, performance spaces, galleries and nightclubs. It’s likely that we will see a proliferation of regional grassroots cultural spaces as young creative people forsake London in favour of other cities.
Partisan collective, a new worker and member-owned co-operative arts and social club in Manchester is one such space. In February 2016, 50 people, including many new arrivals in the city, met in the back room of a Northern Quarter pub to discuss the possibility of setting up a collectively owned arts venue. Eighteen months later, having secured a space in the city centre, they opened their doors with a weekend-long festival of music, film, workshops and discussions.
New venues such as The White Hotel, Mantra and the fully wheelchair-accessible Texture have all emerged in Manchester over the last few years. Meat Free, an all-female promoter collective, run hugely popular not-for-profit electronic music nights. The Real Junk Food project has recently set up shop east of the city centre, recycling waste food in their pay-as-you-feel restaurant. A band threatened with losing their practice space above the Old Abbey Taphouse simply took over the pub. There’s a thriving and growing underground queer scene, with Vice recently dubbing Salford “the most exciting place to party in the UK right now”.
Manchester’s current artistic renaissance has been driven in part by the presence of young, energetic people committed to grassroots and alternative culture. But it’s not all a bed of roses, according to Partisan member Chiara Knott, pointing out the proliferation of high-rise blocks of expensive apartments and hoardings advertising “luxury living in heart of the city”. Having moved back to Manchester after a decade away, she said, “we’ve found a city in crisis. There’s lots of development but none of it is for us, we can’t afford it. Who is it for? We can’t afford to buy a home, our favourite venues are having to fight for their licences.” And what about the proposed £78m government investment in the new “Factory” cultural centre and the biennial Manchester International Festival? “Real culture,” Chiara says, “happens in communities, not galleries.”
Property development is part and parcel of the Manchester “miracle”, as overseas investment floods into the city and the skyline is a forest of cranes. Surely this is a good thing? Landlords and developers think so. Manchester and Salford now offer the highest yields for buy-to-let properties in the country. At nearly 7%, these are double the current London yield: same investment, twice the profits. So, as Landlord Today unrepentantly advises: “It could be time for landlords to turn their attention away from pricey London and look to the UK’s regional cities.”
However, as the example of London demonstrates, one person’s boom is another’s crisis. Despite, or perhaps because of, the real estate boom, homelessness in Manchester has increased by 33% in just the last year. So, where next? If Manchester becomes a giant monument to Qatari capital and the hubris of retired footballers, where will be the next place providing cheap living costs and affordable space to those invested in creating independent culture? Bradford has a growing arts scene in the shell of its magnificent industrial architecture. Hull is the UK City of Culture. But how can we stop the cannibalisation of that culture by real estate markets? How can we stop the expulsion of the very same people who make the city an exciting place to live?
These are not rhetorical questions. The answers should be self-evident. The solution is not for people and families to constantly jump ship, shoved from pillar to post on a dusty road in an endless search for affordable housing. Infrastructure and public spending must be redistributed across the country. Central government and local authorities must take steps to protect underground cultural spaces from destructive market forces. In Berlin, techno clubs are considered to have cultural significance and given protected tax status. The grand council of the night works directly with local authorities to defend the liberties of those engaged in night culture. These aren’t utopian dreams, they are political decisions.
Above all, homes should no longer be treated as commodities, sold off as empty shells for investors to store their wealth. A mass project of social housing is needed to hold communities together and to act as a buffer against the hollowing out of the city by global capital. As we say in Manchester, Our Homes Are Not Your Assets.
Kate Hardy is associate professor and lecturer in work and employment relations at the University of Leeds; Tom Gillespie is an urban geographer at the University of Manchester