Freelance State of Mind: creativity in London will soon become endangered

Columnist and freelance illustrator Ben Tallon talks about how designers and other creative professionals are being priced out of London – and this is to the capital city’s own detriment.

When I moved to London, I still held on to the fantasy that in this ever-evolving cultural behemoth, I would be made complete.

Maybe I was naïve. En route to a project meeting with an ad agency in Covent Garden this week, I count five homeless guys in retail outlet doorways, and two Café Neros, Costa Coffees, and Pret a Mangers, respectively. Big corporations rule central London, and it is following a creative writing evening course that someone raises the question: “How many public spaces are there left that you can enter without spending any money?”

The Times newspaper’s front cover tells me Amazon warehouses are getting a sweeter business rates deal than high-street stores, and only two weeks later, we learn of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s (since reversed) lazy grab at the self-employed for more national insurance. Big business Star Wars are underway and I worry that when the Death Star disconnects from the European Union (EU) altogether, we’ll realise we’re in trouble.

I moved to a city with a global reputation for creativity. At times, such as during my creative planning sessions with clients, this rings true.

But these are fleeting moments. Studio spaces become luxury flats as owners kick out the artists and designers who helped them through the less abundant times. Who can blame them? We cannot compete financially with the benefits that luxury apartments bring to building owners – but what established this global reputation in the first place was never exclusively about monetary gain.

Creatives have helped regeneration – but they’ve had enough

I signed up for a workspace and found myself out in zone four with the rest of my kind, hidden behind factories, billboards and storage units. Now, one by one, my friends leave the capital. Art directors, artists, graphic designers and writers have all recently decamped to the South West and North of England, others opting for European capitals like Berlin and Paris.

These people were partly why I moved to London, but they’ve had enough. This city would be a bleak expanse of apartments and coffee shops without the community who greased it up for gentrification, their risk-taking and innovation playing a crucial role in its regeneration.

Creativity is great – but it will soon become endangered

The London Assembly Regeneration Committee recently published a report, which claims that 3,500 artists are likely to lose their place in the city by 2019. The problem, sadly, is not restricted to London. I talk to friends and collaborators in Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol and they all share stories of creative professionals and prodigies cast back to their bedrooms like naughty children.

This is nothing new. It sits alongside the short-sightedness of removing arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) qualification in schools, deprioritising creativity at a time when, according to gov.uk itself, our industry is worth £9.6 million per hour – almost twice the rate of the rest of the UK economy.

During a trip to the British embassy in Minsk, Belarus last year, I found myself confronted at seemingly every turn with Union Jack spangled posters, each one informing me that “creativity is great”. I had been flown out to spread this message at the international book fair, which included three talks and a live drawing session. Creativity truly is great but if we stand by and allow talent to be chased out of the spaces in which we thrive, it will soon become endangered – and the city will be a sad shadow of itself without it.


Illustrations and words by Ben Tallon.

Ben Tallon is a Design Week columnist, illustrator, art director and author of Champagne and Wax Crayons.

He also hosts visual arts podcast Arrest All Mimics.

You can follow him on Twitter at @bentallon and see his portfolio at http://bentallon.com.

You can read his Freelance State of Mind columns here.

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Comments
  • Thomas Wood March 24, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Hi Ben,

    I agree with everything in your article and I’ve seen very similar things in terms of great creative talent leaving and moving on to pastures new, often down to financial reasons. The question I have though is what can we do to avoid simply standing by? What do you think the action points can be? I’m sure the recognition of this issue is broad, but as a collective, how do you think we can come together to help resolve this problem?

    Thanks!
    Tom

    • Ben Tallon March 24, 2017 at 3:02 pm

      Hi Tom!

      I’m currently looking at ways of bringing together the many voices of people in industry who are well positioned to showcase both the long and short term importance of affordable workspaces. As the numbers in the reports I mentioned highlight, there are financial benefits for the economy. Also, the less tangible values of happiness, belonging, community and energy make said areas attractive and are best nurtured in collective spaces.

      Perhaps a report or a film might be a good idea?

      I feel the many disconnected people who care about this will have to come together through various well articulated media in order to present the case to Sadiq Khan and others who must step in.

      • Thomas Wood March 25, 2017 at 12:56 pm

        Hi Ben,

        Thanks for coming back to me. I agree, a short film or report (potentially both) would be a positive move forward. It would be wonderful if some kind of protection can be brought into creative spaces, with dedicated areas within different boroughs of London, by law, only being allowed to rise rent and rates inline with economic factors, potentially even just design sector rises (rather than trying to keep up with rises seen in property). It would see a protective ‘bubble’ around a part of the industry which clearly can’t keep up with a sector whose rise seems vastly overvalued, but nonetheless impossible to challenge and compete directly with. How this is achieved of course needs further discussion and consultation to help discover those reasons and potential solutions.

        Beyond this, I can see value in how the methodology can be taken to Bristol, Hull and other creatively successful areas, who may soon also see similar problems to those being experienced in London.

        I’d appreciate being able to work on this further with yourself. If you’re interested please let me know and I’ll get in touch directly.

        Thanks!
        Tom

      • Carlo del Mazo March 26, 2017 at 2:09 pm

        Hi, I think is a great idea, Im designer artist, immigrant from Peru living now in London, is very expensive to survive here but London is famous for its creativity, It will be very sad if creativity leave the country, let me know if I can help you in your project in any way.

        Carlo del Mazo.

  • Lawrence Everard March 24, 2017 at 10:59 am

    It’s an interesting and poignant read.

    And one that is so pertinent to the many conversation taking place at present.

    I’m seeing too many creatives (of all ages) leave London, usually for the South West. And whilst they will doubtless bring benefits to the communities they base themselves within, it’s leaving many part of London as soulless gentrified ghettos.

  • Paul Bailey March 24, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Very true points raised in this article.

    After growing up in London, moving back there after university, and founding and running a design studio there for 14 years, I moved to Bristol in late 2015 due to financial pressures of trying to buy London property.

    I thought I’d miss the place terribly and struggled to get my head around not living in London. In reality, I’ve not looked back.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/bristol-uk-best-place-to-live-uk-britain-2017-a7638981.html

  • Robin March 25, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    I think that the forces that are causing this are much, much bigger than the slight implications for the creative community or for London as a creative hub. London will buy in its creative from outside, while out-of-London creative communities will (almost imperceptibly) weaken London’s vice-grip on commercial life. No film, demo, petition or self-serving movement of any kind on behalf of disenfranchised London creatives can make an impact on the global forces that are causing this pricing out of workers from London; which include rising economic inequality, the global movement of people, capital and services and, (particular to the creative community) the rise of the ‘creative’ algorithm, commoditisation of creativity, and an over-supply of designers. I don’t want to sound fatalistic but, as always, to survive we must adapt to change, not attempt to halt the unstoppable. In terms of the Serenity Prayer, to my mind, what this article is discussing is something that we should all have the strength to accept.

  • James Souttar March 26, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    London’s position as a centre for the creative industries is really in danger, caught between the devastating impact of Brexit and the impossible cost of living of the capital. And a resurgent Europe, hardly disintegrating, is already beginning to try to poach creative talent away from London (in addition to the EU nationals working in the sector who are packing up and leaving an increasingly xenophobic Britain). The horrible truth here is that European cities, from Berlin to Lisbon, can offer creatives a more affordable, more culturally vibrant, more congenial environment than London does, and are more in tune with the values of people under 40. Many of them have better weather, too.

    Can London be saved? These problems are too big for its creative industries to solve, and it doesn’t look as if there is the will elsewhere to address them. So it seems as if a ‘Brexodus’ is inevitable. Indeed, as future prime minister Jim Callaghan observed in 1974: “If I were a younger man, I’d emigrate”.

  • Rebecca Battman March 26, 2017 at 10:48 pm

    I left London over 25 years ago and have never regretted it. I now run an agency in Leamington Spa where I live and work right in the heart of a beautiful Regency town and sleep easy at night: great community, almost no crime, clean air, affordable living, lots to do, plenty of work…Need I go on?

    There’s a fast growing, dynamic community here where many talented free spirits have cottoned on to the fact that is possible to be creative outside London. I know it’s a radical idea! Two years ago we gave some desk space in our studio to two digital designers/developers who had left M & C Saatchi, and London, to set up their own agency in Leamington. They are in their own studio now and flying! It was really nice to be able to help them get started.

    Our Head of Creative Adam left London to join us because he wanted to be part of ambitious agency and actually get to see his wife and kids! Having just rebranded a large London University and an Edinburgh based Surgical College, our location is clearly not an issue. In fact we can get pretty much anywhere in the UK within two hours.

    I’ve employed four really talented graduates in the past few years who all shunned the rat race that London has become for better career opportunities and quality of life here. They are thriving and have never regretted their decision. London is only an hour by train and we still work for lots of clients based in the capital.

    If creative talent does move out of London they they will bring vital energy to villages, towns and cities throughout the country and go some way to redress the tragic imbalance between London and the rest of the UK. That can only be good for them personally, our local communities and for the economy at large.

    Get a Life! Leave London!

  • Darren Prentice March 27, 2017 at 10:58 am

    Yet another Euro-phile cry baby trying to scaremonger, London is a an overpriced shithole! Which could explain the reason why only big corporations survive there
    plus I agree with Rebecca Battman who said “Get a Life! Leave London!” there is more to the UK than a single city which Sadiq Khan is slowly making worse!
    Stop looking toward the die-ing EU as from now on you will not be ham strung in dealing only within the EU & can now look toward everywhere else?

  • Monika Luka March 27, 2017 at 11:32 am

    Hi,

    I so agree with your article. I lived, studies and worked in London for 10 years, after I moved to China for 6. I was always missing London and its creativity, opportunities that the city had, galleries, exhibitions, vibrance etc. When I went back after those years I was disappointed what I saw. The city became tired and lost what it had the greatest.

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