Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan wants to protect creative workers from displacement.
London may be a center for the creative industries, but high rents and low wages are making life for the city’s budding artists increasingly untenable. Thanks to a new plan being put together by London City Hall, however, that situation could be about to change. According to local media reports, London’s newly appointed Deputy Mayor for Culture, Justine Simons, has plans to protect London’s creative scene with special “Creative Enterprise Zones.” In an attempt to create an integrated response to the problems facing London’s artists, these zones could be set up in areas of London that already have higher concentrations of artists’ studios, such as East London’s Hackney Wick and Southeastern Peckham.
The exact details of how these zones would function haven’t been confirmed publicly. But the plan was part of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s election campaign earlier this year, and with no need for special London Assembly approval, specifics should be firmed up in the near future. While campaigning, Mayor Khan suggested that these zones could contain subsidized live-work spaces for people with lower incomes working in arts and fashion. Another possibility, mentioned off the record by city hall officials, is to make sure studio complexes can’t be snapped up by residential developers, forcing creative workers to move on, often away from the city entirely. A further suggestion, brought up by Simons in The Standard is to provide assistance for artists looking to buy their own studios. While this would only help artists with fairly established careers, it could help some London creatives manage the Kafkaesque process of securing a loan, which is incredibly difficult for people whose income relies on numerous irregular payments.
The problems the creative zone plan hopes to fight are already much in evidence in London. Five to 10 years ago, East London’s Hackney Wick was an abandoned-looking but thriving nest of affordable studio spaces. Now the area still has the highest concentration of artists per square foot in all of Europe—signs that London’s arts scene is still far from dead—but artists are being pushed out. This has led to accusations that the Olympic Park, located next door, has actually served to kill London’s creative culture. A creative zone set up here could not just provide additional studio space, but also set up planning restrictions that make it harder to boot artists from the area.
All this sounds promising, but for some Londoners, this promise of rescue for even just a small number of artists has a bittersweet taste to it. Many Londoners in non-creative professions are struggling with the city’s costs and would dearly welcome some action to help them secure affordable places to live in their own neighborhoods. Figures on Britain’s artists do chip away at the stereotype that they are privileged dilettantes whose problems are solely of the “first world” variety: In 2015, two-thirds of Britain’s artists were earning just £10,000 (around $13,300 USD) annually. Some might take this meager sum as proof that these people need to get “real” jobs, but undervaluing the contribution of their work is ultimately a race to the bottom that nobody wins.
The zones will still need to manage the different strata that exist within London’s art world and creative industries. The exodus of artists from newly hip areas of London is well documented, but by the time these areas attract media attention, most creatives have already long moved on to somewhere cheaper. At the same time, establishing a zone in some far-flung place on the city’s perimeter would invite accusations of aiding artist displacement closer to the city core. The creation of these zones may prove a delicate process to manage. But even if the plan doesn’t provide answers to London’s affordability crisis, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.