When Jane asked me to write a piece for the Clarion, I decided write about what I think some of the key challenges and opportunities facing Soho are, and tell you a bit about the work I’ve been doing recently.
Below I’ve written about two key areas. There are other issues which are also very important (for example how to safeguard the future of the Soho Square GP service as well as what will happen to Oxford Street) but here I’ve focused on two issues.
Please write to me with any thoughts you have about what I’ve written, or just to say hi and introduce yourself if we haven’t met yet. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Overdevelopment is a real threat in Soho. Infrastructure like Crossrail and building more and more luxury hotels have a massive impact – they lead to endless road closures and the constant din of drills and diggers which are very disruptive to local life. Overdevelopment can also undermine Soho’s character and sense of community. Soho is special because of its mix of residents, people working in the arts and creative sector, small business owners, and market traders. Local people are the glue that bring Soho’s communities together and give the village its unique identity. But hotels undermine this sense of place and community, making Soho feel more transitory and bland.
There are many examples. But the most glaring example is Berwick Street. Building works have gone on for years now and there is still no end in sight. Those who have suffered the most are residents, market traders, and independent businesses – meanwhile developers make a profit. At the end of the process there’ll be a Premier Inn on Berwick Street that most people didn’t want in the first place. Which brings me onto my next point. Local people feel like they haven’t had any say in shaping and influencing change in Soho. Decisions have been made in a top-down way without genuine consultation or community involvement. This is totally unacceptable and needs to end.
The resignation of Robert Davis, a leading Westminster Conservative who received hundreds of gifts and hospitality from developers and other big businesses, will be welcomed by many Soho residents. He was a key player in granting planning approval to unpopular developments. But his resignation doesn’t guarantee a change of direction at Westminster Council, far from it. The challenge is now to ensure it does and that the local community is given more of a say.
That’s why Westminster Labour has been pushing for reforms to planning to put residents in the driving seat. We pushed for residents to be allowed to speak at Planning Committees, and the Council has finally agreed although they haven’t said when it’ll be introduced. We also want the Council to appoint a ‘residents’ advocate’ on major applications to put the case for local people.
There are other opportunities: the ongoing review of the Soho Audit and the release of the draft Soho Neighbourhood Plan (a stellar piece of work by local residents) may provide tools to challenge overdevelopment. Plus, change needs to happen at a higher level – at national government – so that planning frameworks do not constrain the agency of people to challenge decisions which aren’t in the local interest. We must remain vigilant of these opportunities and I will continue to work with local people to lobby for meaningful reforms.
CityWest Homes is scrapped
CityWest Homes is an independent (or ‘arms-length’) organisation which was set up by Westminster Council to manage the Council’s provision of social housing. For years tenants and leaseholders living in CityWest Homes (CWH) accommodation have been getting a terrible service. During the local election campaign and since then I’ve spoken to many CWH residents, and frankly those who have anything positive to say about the service they get are far and few between.
Over and over again I hear residents talk about the same issues: the call centre isn’t fit for purpose, there is an ongoing repairs crisis which means getting anything fixed often takes far too long (if they get fixed at all), and major works are managed poorly. To their credit, there are some members of staff who work very hard and do their best, but the system overall is failing.
I presented a motion at Westminster Council in the summer, asking for the management of CWH to be brought back ‘in house’. This would mean that the Council would take on the role of managing council housing directly, helping bring about the lack of accountability that exists and potentially precipitating a culture change. The Conservatives voted down the motion at the meeting, but I was very pleased when they later changed their mind and agreed to the proposal. The decision has now been taken to bring CWH in house, and as of April next year a new management structure – with the Council at the helm – will be in place.
This is a good step forward. But it isn’t enough. The Council now needs to show real leadership and demonstrate it is able to tackle the persistent problems residents experience. Also, there are questions that remain unanswered, like what on-the-ground support residents will get given that the Council hasn’t committed to reopening estate offices it closed down a year ago (something else I also called for). I will remain vigilant and continue to press the Council on the issues.
Pancho Lewis can be contacted email@example.com or if not you can call 020 7641 3411.
He holds regular advice surgeries on the third Saturday of each month from 10:00-11:00 at Danceworks, 16 Balderton Street, Mayfair, W1K 6TN, and 11:30-12:30 at 68 Dean Street, Soho, W1D 4QJ. No appointment is needed.