An open letter – A nail in the coffin of Soho enabled by Westminster council

About us – We are a small, independent business in Soho with roots back to 1933 who are now so dismayed with Westminster council that we feel we have to make our views known. We don’t usually moan, and we are not one for consipriacy theories but honestly it’s just getting too much!

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Things change, it’s a fact of life. Things change for better, things change for the worse and how things change in Soho is largely dictated by Westminster council. So let’s take a look at the message being sent by Westminster council by the recent decision to grant planning permission for the conversion of Film House on Wardour Street (round the corner from us) from 11,000 sq meters of office space used by the creative industries to a 174 room upmarket hotel.

Westminster council claim they are committed to maintaining the character of Soho, which is generally considered to benefit from the varied, mixed use of premises. A vibrant mix of residential, creative, office, retail and hospitality use ensures that the area cannot be monopolised and overrun by any one type of industry. Supporting the provision of small office and workshop spaces supports independent, creative businesses that add so much to the vibrancy and character of the area – which is Soho’s magnetic north.

Westminster council’s planning committee have decided that turning over a large amount of space dedicated to independent creative business is fine as “the proposals are considered to be in line with [a policy to] encourage an increase in visitor accommodation throughout the city.” This was no doubt facilitated by a £15,000 payment to Westminster councils PPA scheme that subsidises the planning department.

There’s the rub. From a council perspective visitors are cheap. Tourists come in, spend money and leave. Visitors and the large corporations providing the theme park cookie cutter experiences tailored to them don’t heavily use council services. They don’t complain about noise, dumped rubbish, drug dealing, vagrants or the disruption caused by over-development – because they don’t live and breathe Soho. They don’t need social care and they don’t use community services. They come in and leave, it’s a transient occupation. Soho is a source of work, income and profit and nothing more. The manager of Starbucks on the corner doesn’t give a shit that the rubbish bin on the street has been overflowing for three days. We do, so we report it to make sure it’s emptied. The manager of Chipotle, King, Starbucks, Brgr or Cards Galore don’t care that junkies use the street as a toilet and it gets piled up with human waste. We do, and we have to request a “flush” of the area to get the shit cleaned off. That’s how glamorous Soho life is. It’s the residents and small business owners that deal with this for the benefit of everyone.

Westminster council have no interest in supporting the independent character of Soho and the individuals that have created and maintain it. Small businesses complain and protest about sustainability. Large multi-national or venture capital backed hospitality and retail interests are happy to pay inflated rates and rents.

Westminster council had the opportunity to draw a line in the sand with this planning application and demonstrate their genuine commitment to the diversity of Soho. Westminster council granted permission despite overwhelming objections, including The Soho Society which opposed the unwelcome change of use and impact on businesses in the existing building and 51 objections (out of 52 responses) from other representations received, mostly from occupiers of buildings in and around the site.

So here are the facts – when lamenting the fate of Soho it is Westminster Council you should be looking to and lobbying. No end of ideas, hopes and wishful thinking will enable small independent business to operate here – economics and vested interests are what shape and dictate events which is plainly evident on the ground. The small, truly independent operators and landlords that still remain in this area are exiting stage left. The community that created and sustained Soho and it’s village atmosphere (of which my family is a part) is disintegrating to be replaced by a disparate set of generic, venture capital backed enterprises run to maximise profit.

In 5 – 10 years Soho will become Covent Garden. A generic area dominated by global retail and hospitably enterprises whose sole purpose is to suck in tourist dollars.

My family has run a business here since 1933. I was brought up here and have lived here for over 25 years and for the first time in that period Soho doesn’t feel like home. Soho is vanishing. What it is being replaced by is souless and generic and Westminster council are colluding with big money business interests to crush the soul and character of the area. On face value it would be easy to conclude that Westminster council are actively trying to get rid of small independent businesses. So come on Westminster – what do you want? You cannot rely on the diversity of Soho to pull in visitors whilst at the same time decimating it.

What is to be done? I do not know, but come here while you can. In a few years time this will be the place where Soho used to be.

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