The politician's handbook to East LondonNovember 7, 2010
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to Korinna who told me that the big trend in construction, post economic downturn, is refitting old buildings. I was reminded of this when reading that the Olympic Park Legacy Company was looking for ideas on what to do with the Olympic Media Centre if the decided not to demolish it. And then the fresh-faced PM comes in with his big ideas about a “Tech City” in “East London”. East London is a curious creature and in order to avoid massive misunderstanding and misinterpretation of both the natural phenomenon of creativity in East London and the role of the creative industries in it, here are some pointers for all you politicians out there.
1. Stratford isn’t near Old Street.
Right now with the current infrastructure, it takes 20 minutes to get from Old Street Station to Stratford station by Tube. It takes less time (13 minutes) to get to Oxford Circus from Old Street. You’d never say that Soho was East London would you? That difference will shape who goes to set up shop in Stratford. Maybe you should call it East of East London. East City squared? Anyway, the point is that most business in the “Silicon Roundabout” are in close proximity to each other and to Old Street Station simply because it’s as East as you would want to go to if you were living in Kensington and not East enough to get mugged. I’m sure you’ve not actually taken the Tube since getting into politics, but try it. Stratford will be “too far” for most creative people and they won’t go there. Or as often as they go to the O2, which is to say never. When people go back East, it’s to go home, not to go work. The CrossRail might help, but not if it’s full of people in suits, which it will be now that you’re moving the Eurostar away from King’s Cross to Stratford. Creative people don’t like to hang out where the suits hang out. It makes them nervous.
2. Creative people are poor
Hackney is indeed full of RCA graduates, artists, and world class designers. Because they work too much and don’t do 9 to 5 it’s important for them to live near where they work. So they moved to Hackney because it was cheap. They live in Stoke Newington, Hackney Central, Dalston, Finsbury Park. On the edge of the transport system because it’s cheap. Cheap means getting a work space for less than £200 a month. The price of your average thursday evening lobster meal. That’s how poor they are. If you fill East London with people like Google, Facebook, Intel, etc the value of property will rise, and all the creative people will move to emerging creative areas like Bermondsey and New Cross.
You don’t think this matters I know, but it will because those creative people make the latest fashion trends happen, design the latest furniture, are the next important fine artists and generally make London THE place to be in the world if you’re an artist or a designer. People in tech know this, and like the things that the designers make happen, so the tech people and creative people hang out together and sometimes collaborate. If you have tech people without the designers, then you have White City, Media City UK and other “high tech” ghettos where creative people are nowhere to be seen.
3. Creative and tech people like their food and coffee
The best cups of coffee can be found in East London along with award-winning schemes like the Dis-loyalty card. Creative people and tech people like East London because they can get a fantastic meal for less than £10. There are a thousands reasons why you would want to work for yourself or even start a business or a tech start-up and I think in the top 10 there is “being able to stop eating horrible shit food at shitty corporate canteens and the crappiest coffee made from an automated machine”. Pret, Benugo and Shizu are cheap but the food is cheap too so when your property developers look for businesses to offer catering services for the suits from Google, I can only hope they would think outside the box.
View Les carnets d’Alexandra: The London Coffee Map 2010 in a larger map
4. Silicon Valley can’t clone iself
One last thing I think. The reason why Silicon Valley was set up in America wasn’t because you weren’t able to provide the same financial infrastructure, tax benefits, etc. It’s because it’s America and there’s lots of cheap land. This isn’t California. (Purely in terms of numbers, California are 36 million people and London has 7). You should be very very proud of that. I’d be ready to bet that the UK and London has more culture, museums, advertising agencies, artists and designers than all the US put together. The best art colleges and schools are here too. So relax. Creating a competiting Silicon Valley with Silicon Valley businesses makes no sense at all. You’re not competing, you’re begging for them to set up sales offices. Empty shells. That’s what Stockley park is there for. The people who want to live the American dream will do so, there’s not much you can do to prevent that. Get over it. Force banks into lending to creative people again. Give local SMEs tax-breaks. That would be smart. Help them fund their strange tech or non-tech ventures. Take care of your creative people, they will thank you more than corporate America ever can. And they can vote.
I know it’s not a perfectly formed case I’m presenting to you, but perhaps it would be better to consider leaving the Olympic site as a series of museums to the folly of the Olympic bid pre-economic downturn instead of investing time and effort in a pointless program that fails to understand what makes East London and the creative industries tick. In short, leave the East alone Dave.
Love and kisses,