Artists are being pushed out of London as rapid gentrification squashes the reality of affordability of studio space, to the point where thousands are expected to lose their workspace in the span of just two years.
We talked to artists to find out how they’re responding, what’s being done to support the wider artist community, what should be done - and what you should do if your studio space is under threat.
We spoke to screen printer and artist Aida Wilde, illustrator Lucinda Rogers and property owner Stewart Schwartz about the effects of gentrification in Hackney Wick. Regeneration Committee chair Navin Shah explains the vision of Mayor, whilst Mark Clack from Walthamstow artist collective Wood Street Walls, London-based illustrator Rod Hunt and Second Floor Studios & Arts founder Matthew Wood share suggestions for the future.
The struggle for affordable artist studio space in London is no new phenomenon, but it’s been put back into the spotlight with the release of disturbing figures from the London Assembly.
Often referred to as the cultural hub of Britain, London accounts for around 850 art galleries and artist workspaces. Close to 80 percent of visitors come to London because they cite culture and heritage as something “very positive”.
The London Assembly released a report in March – Creative tensions: optimising the benefits of culture through regeneration – which estimates some 3,500 artists are likely to lose their places of work by 2019; that’s 30 percent of the current provision. To look at it from another angle, culture accounts for one in six jobs in London, and London holds almost one third of creative jobs in the UK. The creative sector is significant, and it’s under threat of being pushed out of London.
Rent hikes or development as a result of gentrification proves difficult for artists who are among the lowest earners, making around £10,000 a year according to the report. Industrial land buildings are being lost to housing developments.
Gentrification happened in Shoreditch, when a rise in tech-start ups pushed out artists, it’s happening in Hackney Wick (which has the largest concentration of artists in Europe), and already expected to happen in places like Dalston and Peckham.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has expressed commitment to “embed cultural objectives into regeneration interventions to improve community participation” (you can read his manifesto here), and although this is a positive step for the creative community, it’s hard to see evidence of planning policy changed in favour of it.
The current situation
Mark Clack is one of the founding members of Wood Street Walls – an arts organisation based in Walthamstow that provides free workshops for the community in exchange for affordable studio space for a range of artists.
The successful crowd funding campaign raised just under £40,000 to transform a derelict space on Wood St into an art space. The campaign garnered a lot of attention, and received £18,000 from the Mayor of London. As a result the London Assembly approached Mark about the gentrification of Hackney Wick and artists around the area.
Mark says commercial rates have doubled in east London’s redeveloped Hackney and Walthamstow in the last four years, making them near “impossible to achieve”.
"Developers promise ‘affordable studio space’, but affordable being very ambiguous, and in the transitional period when studios are redeveloped, there is nowhere to go for artists while the developers regenerate the building.”
But he says retaining artists in London is invaluable.
“Without their input you see a lot of homogenised places that have no identity of their own, so having affordable spaces for artists to operate is pivotal for the success of the UK creative economy.”
Despite artistic value to the economy, culture-led gentrification in Hackney Wick has had an impact on artists whose energies attracted regeneration in the first place. They gathered in the east London neighbourhood organically before the 2012 London Olympics brought in industrial business and increased development in the area, pushing up rent prices.
Currently Vittoria Wharf – a building providing affordable studio space - is under threat of demolition to make way for a proposed footbridge and H14 bridge under plans by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). On March 28 the LLDC planning committee voted to approve the bridges, despite thousands of objections. UK illustrator Lucinda Rogers has been fighting to save Vittoria Wharf with the campaign #savehackneywick. You can check out her animation explaining the situation below.
Lucinda says the building represents a turning point where local planning authorities, local councils and the Mayor of London can consciously choose to protect the space.
“This is the moment where they should be thinking ‘We can physically protect some of these spaces because we’ve got the power to do that’, and in this case, they half own the building,” says Lucinda.
The Creative Tensions report suggests using Hackney Wick as a pilot for the proposed Creative Enterprise Zones – an initiative proposed last year to conjure both protected and affordable housing and workspace for artists and the wider creative industry.
“If [local planning authorities] literally put this into their policy, it can come into effect. Then when a developer comes along and says ‘I want to turn that building into flats’, they look at the policy and say ‘You can’t, you’ve got to retain half the ground space for a studio’,” says Lucinda.
Regeneration Committee chair Navin Shah, who was part of the Creative Tensions report, says this type of protection for artists is already happening in Barking, a suburban town that lies almost 9 miles east of central London, and is identified in the London Plan. Creative Barking and Dagenham (CBD) is a six-year project that commissions locally-owned art projects. Partnership projects funded by the Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme, the local council and local businesses support local artists. You can see what’s happening with the CBD so far here.
“Rather than politicians or local authorities saying ‘you will have x, y, z galleries or work spaces’, local communities need to collectively come up with an agenda and say to local authorities, say to the Mayor, ‘Look, these are our priorities, this is what we want to see locally happen’,” he says.
Aida Wilde, a screen printer based in Hackney Wick, has initiated Hackney Wicked protests against homogenisation in the area.
Although her business isn’t directly affected by the demolition of Vittoria Wharf, she’s previously had to move out of Camden and Shoreditch because of gentrification. Several of her art students have moved to Peckham in the last two years, and she says there’s already evidence of a huge amount of artists leaving London for the Kent coastal holiday town of Margate.
Aida wants to see a cap on how much developers are allowed to raise their rent, the availability of longer leases and more work-live spaces. She says landlords need to be made aware of the goodness that comes from studios.
“It’s uncertainty that looms over your head, and for me I have so much heavy equipment as I’m a printer. I would want to know if I can stay there for 10 years, or if I wanted to move I could pass on the studio with some sort of arranged cap, some sort of sharing scheme,” she says.
One landlord who provides studio space in Hackney Wick is Stewart Schwartz.
“You’ve always got an option of taking a property and gutting it, but I’ve refrained from doing that because why spend money on doing something, when you can be happy with what it is and offer it out?” says Stewart.
“You spend millions of dollars in developments which means you have to charge more money, so it’s just unnecessary circulation of money.”
Illustrator Rod Hunt – who’s worked in London for over 20 years – says to provide a convincing argument to retain your presence in the community as an artist, you need to be visible.
“[This means] having an open studio a couple of times per year so people know you’re there. If people see you’re visible and part of the community they’re going to be more inclined to think you’re valuable by continuing being there.”
But rather than moving out of London, he believes the importance for artists to stay in the capital is far-reaching.
“London is a hot house of creativity. You’re connected to people, inspired by your peers, you learn from other people by being with other people who are doing it as well. You’ve got all your resources at your fingertips,” he says.
“You’ve got the drive to achieve creatively. If you move out to a place that hasn’t got that, you can find yourself take your foot off the gas and feel unconnected to the wider creative community.
“Lots of opportunities come from networking because you are surrounding by lots of other creative people as well. From a social perspective and business perspective, it’s very important to be connected and not isolated.”
What is being done?
Artist studio space provider Second Floor Studios & Arts is a representative on the Workspace Advisory Board for the Greater London Authority (GLA). Second Floor spokesperson Matthew Wood has been working with developers and artists for 20 years.
“Artists have long moved into the cheaper districts of the capital, they’ve made them safe, they’ve made them vibrant and the viability that developers have always needed, and then coffee shops open and the bars open, everything the developers needs to start putting houses, then obviously [artists] start to get priced out,” he says.
His latest project and first property purchase to tackle this problem is the Anthology Deptford Foundry, an area based in the south-east borough of Lewisham and home to the first Royal Navy Dockyard. It aims to provide 75 workspaces by 2018 in conjunction with developer Anthology and funding from the Arts Impact Fund for fit-out costs.
The latest average rent level to released (in 2014) was £13.73 a square foot, and Matthew says when Anthology Deptford Foundry opens they anticipate to charge £15.50 per square foot. The project has a 250-year lease, making it an important one for London artists.
Although Anthology approached Second Floor for this project, Matthew says it’s rare.
“Developers that look very rich on paper are heavy leveraged in terms of debt to normally a foreign bank, so they do a lot of activity up front but actually they’ve got to sell their units, and they’re not really interested in commercial space.”
He says the power for change lies in having a policy or planning authority that can stipulate what the developer can and can’t do.
One method could be to incorporate and prioritise cultural infrastructure into the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which would in turn provide millions of pounds from developers that can be used to build studios. There's also Section 106 - often referred to as ‘developer contributions’ - legislation which can restrict the development of land, or require it to be used in a specific way.
Matthew has been consulting the GLA for access to finance for studio providers of reasonable scale to get projects off the ground.
“Like many arts organisations we don’t build up huge reserves, one of our prime aims is to keep our rents as affordable as possible for our members.
By keeping rents low, that means we’re 40 percent below commercial rents, therefore you never build reserves.”
Funding has not yet been granted, however the Mayor is exploring plans for a Creative Land Trust as a means to provide faster financing for studio providers and protection of buildings to be held for studios.
“We are looking at creative ways to secure building assets, to take on future assets, outside of the work that we do as advisers to the GLA. It’s up to them what they formulate and put forward as policy makers,” says Matthew.
Back at Wood Street Walls, Mark says the London Enterprise Panel has been recently formed as a branch of money to help community groups like theirs, but it’s still “early days”.
“I think there needs to be better thought put toward neighbourhood plans to protect artists space in general, and also better incentives for developers to support artists workspace,” he says.
“Without local laws and legislation, without the council providing clear guidelines encouraging them to support the community, it’s a free market and landlords can do what they like."
He says there needs to be more focus on outer London boroughs. Wood Street Walls’ successful artist and community-based model can be infiltrated in other boroughs.
The organisation charges just under £200 pounds per desk, and every artist agrees to put on a free workshop for the local community. This builds the relationship between the artist and the community, and provides context on the impact the creative community can have on a local area.
What needs to happen?
When asked, Navin couldn’t give a date for when the Mayor is expected to respond to the Creative Tensions report, but he suggests the Mayor could seek data before continuing with the new London Plan.
“He must commit to collecting data at an individual borough level on existing facilities, current rents for work spaces and the number of artists work spaces in each and every individual borough - something that we don't have,” he says.
Mark thinks it’s already too late to support artists in London boroughs, but believes there’s still hope to attract and retain artists in the outer boroughs such as Barnet, Havering and Croydon.
“There’s still hope for the Mayor and local councils to actually put a plan together to capture artists migrating out of the central London boroughs before they move out to Margate.
"It’s best to save artists going out of London completely than reducing the creative output of London,” he says.
Mark has seen a lot of assets under the control of the council that are left underused. He suggests that a community group be given access to take residency in one of these buildings for a short term to test out the group’s specific theories.
To do that there should be an easier mechanism for the council to release those assets temporarily. One model for this is Scotland’s Community Right to Buy law.
“If a community space is coming up to be sold in Scotland you can actually get a community group to bid and buy a property, that’s based in legislation,” says Mark.
As explained by the Scottish government, after an application has been submitted to Scottish Ministers and passed initial checks it’s forwarded to the landowner and, if applicable, any heritable creditor for their comments. A temporary prohibition is placed on the landowner/heritable creditor preventing them taking steps in relation to transferring or disposing the land. If the application is approved by Scottish Ministers the registration will remain over the land for five years with the chance to re-register that interest every five years.
Currently in the UK a developer who could pay two times the price for the building can potentially outbid community groups.
So you’re being pushed out of your studio?
If you’re an artist living in London and your studio rent increases above what you can afford, or your landlord is looking to redevelop the property, Rod suggests approaching studio providers such as Second Floor and Bow Arts or look to share space to divvy up the rent price.
Matthew says the first thing to do is contact your MP, local authority and local assembly member to “really make the case”. Look for studio space at The National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers under the London Region. Another website is the Artist Studio Finder – and initiative of Bow Arts.
“We’ve set ourselves a 10 to 15 year strategy to put back space in London, and if we all continue to work in the same way, the amount of space that was estimated to be lost we can recover,” he says.
“We’ve got to approach it from a different viewpoint and we need intervention, whether it come from a sister fund (Arts Impact Fund) or the Heritage Lottery.”
It’s clear there’s a tension between the need for creative diversity to strengthen the wider unique character and economy of London, artists needing to live in and near London for business and inspiration, and local councils having no policy control over the pushing commercial interests of developers and rapid gentrification. Since the Creative Tensions report has been released, the Mayor of London hasn’t made clear changes to planning policy at local levels.
However, efforts are being made with the conception of a Creative Land Trust and the established London Enterprise Panel. The Regeneration Committee suggests using Hackney Wick as a pilot for Creative Enterprise Zones and gathering more data on rent prices. Artists themselves, such as Aida and Lucinda, are pushing vocal opposition to development.
At the crux of the issue, both artists and landlords say local neighbourhood plans need to support affordable artist workspace in order to regulate developers. As well as this, studio space providers need access to funding to bolster the beginning of construction plans.
“If we have enough policies and funding that goes with that, we can counter gentrification and marginalisation. I centrally believe that it can be done and I think that we need to start addressing that sooner than later,” says Navin.