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The Great Scam of London’s ‘Community Spaces’

Editorial contributor, Rupert Galea, explores how all is not what it may seem when it comes to London's so-called 'community spaces', and their value in our cultural landscape.
April 27, 2024
Rupert Galea
(Image credit: Club 414)

Sadiq Khan recently came out with a claim that London is a ‘24-hour’ city with regards to the prevalence in nightlife and live events. As someone who’s always seen the man as not particularly funny, I stand corrected. Commentators have been taking shots at this statement for several weeks now – to nobody’s surprise – but it would be reductive and insincere to claim that our growing deficiency of live music only shows itself between the hours of 2am and 6am. Big money, and its antagonism towards cultural spaces, has no concept of clocks.

To those of us with an active interest in our city’s cultural infrastructure, the story of Hondo Enterprises and their systematic neutering of Brixton’s grassroots community stands out in the collective memory as a flagship tale of a thriving artistic scene being undermined in the name of shareholder interests. A wealth of reporting and online buzz highlighted the eviction of 30 artists from their Brixton Village studios, the counterfeit community space known as Lost In Brixton and the unmitigated corporate shitshow behind the handling of Club 414.

Reading about it at the time, one might have been forgiven for viewing the whole debacle as an isolated scandal where local residents and activists (partially) succeeded in pushing back against an invasive urban development scheme. The larger picture is a little more unsettling.

The Music Venue Trust has documented the closure of more than a third of London's grassroots music venues between 2007 and 2015. Similarly, the Greater London Authority reported in 2017 that the city had lost 58% of its LGBTQ+ venues since 2006. Over the course of 2023 we lost roughly two music venues per week.

As one particularly controversial example, the forced closure of IKLECTIK and its neighbours in Old Paradise Yard is emblematic not only of an institutional indifference towards the need for community-driven arts and retail, but also smacks of collective punishment of the owners and supporters of these spaces for attempting to push back against board-approved erosion of local art.

IKLECTIK (Image credit: Matt Favero)

IKLECTIK is gone and its site will be loitered on by 1.6 million square feet of office space. And you know what? When I journey around London, I do often find myself thinking “yeah, more offices please”.

These case studies of independently-owned cultural spaces being displaced by global investment funds lurking behind a façade of cutesy pop-up venues and corporate-sponsored cultural events are not just individual transactions that occur in a bubble. They’re part of a larger generative homogenisation, wherein the overall costs of living in an affected area become a tool to displace more and more local residents who might otherwise have been able to help rally against future “urban renewal projects”.  

These individuals’ economic contributions to the area in the form of spending their cash and paying their tax are also taken out of the equation and replaced by £5-cappuccino coffeeshops owned by shell companies owned by offshore investment funds that have become alarmingly adept at avoiding local taxes.

Add to this the government’s systematic gutting of local council budgets and you have the story of POP Brixton. A small-ish plot behind the tube station, originally intended to be leased rent-free to local small business owners Mark Gilchrist and Will Sandy to realise their plan for a local market and community garden called GROW, their plan was effectively hijacked by property development firm Turner Works, who paid their way into taking full control of the project. Renamed to POP Brixton and now owned by The Collective, a “luxury co-living organisation” with a combined property portfolio of £2.7 billion, what was meant to be an inclusive community regeneration project turned into a corporate-owned exemplar of urban gentrification.

POP Brixton (Image credit: Wunmi Onibudo)

Recently I stopped off to buy a water at Harris + Hoole, a Tesco-owned enterprise masquerading as a small independent cafe. I was greeted by a barista roughly my age with the line “what can I get you, comrade?”. I threw up in my mouth a little bit. This tiny interaction is a perfect microcosm for the larger issue we are facing. As ownership contracts and shareholder disclosures become intentionally more and more occluded, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish an independent, locally owned business from a megacorporation.

Of course, we now have measures such as the Agent of Change principle, which requires residential developments to bear the cost of soundproofing when they are built near existing nightlife venues, protecting these cultural spaces from noise complaints and potential closure. Community Land Trusts, largely active in Hackney and Lambeth, have been able to take steps towards ensuring the land they own is preserved for community use and immune to speculative property investment.

For London’s grassroots cultural scene, there are systems in place to help. However, the financial and legal mechanisms involved in securing, allocating and investing in public spaces remains very much to the advantage of large-scale investment funds and property developers. The biggest impact we can have comes from how we spend our payslips. The past few months have demonstrated the effectiveness of boycotting, with Starbucks being forced to close their Shoreditch branch and the owner of E1 stepping down after being revealed to have served in the Israeli Occupying Forces.

We, the artists, DJs, performers, whatever we like to call ourselves, have some say in the venues and creative spaces we engage with, and this comes with a responsibility to scrutinise their operations and check that they are locally owned and benefit the community. A quick background check on POP Brixton reveals that it does not meet these criteria, so let’s play at the places that do.

(Image credit: POP Brixton)