The West End Partnership, a Westminster Council-led project, has launched a major new report setting out its ‘Vision for 2030’. Described by the council as a 15 year project that could deliver £500 million in proposed improvements, the report includes a number of welcome schemes to improve the public realm and promote both Westminster and London as a whole.
However Westminster Labour Councillors believe that the proposed Vision for 2030 fails to fully address some of the challenges facing Soho and Chinatown, two of the West End’s most iconic areas.
Rising rents and commercial pressures are threatening the diversity of premises that make these important sections of the West End unique international attractions and vital parts of our city. As the ‘Save Soho’ campaign has articulated so well over recent months, Soho faces growing encroachment from high street firms that risk changing the character of the area for good, with local small businesses being priced or pushed out.
London’s Chinese Community have previously raised their concerns about the impact of rent rises and gentrification on the future viability of Chinatown, yet the challenges facing Chinatown are not mentioned in the documents.
At the same, the housing crisis is making it ever more difficult for those on modest incomes to live in the West End. The West End has never before been considered to be a place just for those with money. The Victorian philanthropists did not say to the poor that they only place they could be housed was miles away in ‘cheaper’ areas. George Peabody built homes for people on low incomes in Mayfair. In the first half of the 20th century Westminster and Marylebone Councils built homes for those on low incomes in the West End. More recently, from the 1970’s onwards, the Soho Housing Association and others have continued this common sense and enlightened policy of providing new homes for those of modest means all over the West End, many of whose residents work in local business and keep public services like schools, hospitals and the fire brigade working smoothly.
Add to this the imminent Government requirement for both Westminster and Camden Councils to sell off their most expensive Council flats as they become vacant in order to pay for the cost of allowing housing association tenants to buy their flats at a discount, and the future for the West End’s existing residents looks even more bleak.
Labour welcomes plans to build on the commercial potential of the West End and ensure business thrives in order to benefit local communities and the wider economy. But broad aspirations to increase the supply of commercial space across the wider West End do not fully address the challenges faced by Soho and Chinatown, where a market-led approach as set out in the report may not lead to results that are in the public interest. Westminster has a clear role to play as an influencer, landowner, planning and licensing authority to help protect the future of these areas.
Westminster Labour Group Leader Councillor Adam Hug said;
“A future vision of the West End that doesn’t fully address the challenges faced by small shops, restaurants, pubs and venues in Soho and Chinatown is a huge missed opportunity. These unique places are the beating heart of London and admired across the world. With rent rises and gentrification threatening to drive long standing businesses out of the area, Westminster needs to work with landowners and small business people to develop a long-term sustainable future for Chinatown and Soho.”
Labour’s Built Environment Spokesperson Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg said;
“Not only is the West End under threat from this proposed ‘forced sale’ of Council and Housing Association homes, but also from Westminster City Council’s continued policy of allowing new residential developments to ‘buy out’ of their obligation to provide on-site affordable housing. Over recent years the Council has been seduced by the one-way argument that by taking cash in lieu of on-site affordable housing in the West End it can provide extra housing elsewhere. This policy has reduced the supply of West End homes for those on low incomes from a trickle to a drought and reinforced the exclusivity of the West End residential market, pushing prices ever higher and slowly, but surely, destroying the West End as a living, breathing community open to all.”
While the word ‘diversity’ is used in the report a number of times but the only time rents are mentioned is in the context of a general desire to increase the supply of commercial space across the West End as set out in P12 of the report. Page 15 of the delivery plan notes a scheme to promote diverse business space but without any detail or projected programme cost (unlike other plans).
The only mention of housing is in the context of providing homes for West End workers. No mention is made of providing homes for the families of existing West End residents.