Many creative people would have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of London’s West End, especially if you asked them to move south of the river.
By their very nature creative businesses feed off each other and thrive on the buzz and energy of their surroundings and working environment, which is why Soho remains the beating heart of this industry.
Soho is, after all, an internationally-renowned sub-brand of London which can help businesses woo overseas clients. A W1 postcode still adds kudos and credibility to any company prepared to absorb the high rents and growing security fears that go with such a high-profile address.
However, the balance of power between Soho and less salubrious areas of the capital could be shifting.
Creative hubs are springing up across central London as film, television, advertising and design companies are priced out of traditionally popular areas. It means places where their directors once feared to tread are being viewed more positively, helped by lower rents and millions of pounds of regeneration investment.
One area which could certainly rival Soho and places such as Hoxton within a few years is SE1 – which encompasses areas variously known as Bankside, Borough, Southwark, the South Bank and South Central. Premises in King’s Cross in the north, Brixton and Deptford in the south and Shoreditch in the east are also being eyed by creative companies.
“Property prices are fuelling the creation of these clusters. That is why people went to Hoxton in North London in the nineties,” says John Howkins, author of the 2001 book The Creative Economy. “When landlords have empty buildings to fill you see the artists move in first before other creatives take advantage of cheap rents. Then cafes and bars arrive as a place gets a reputation for being funky and trendy. London is full of creative nooks and crannies these days.”
Location branding consultant Niclas Ljungberg adds: “Creative businesses in general tend to operate on lower margins than other professional services so they actively seek out – and subsequently create – the next ‘hot’ place. Although where exactly this will be is not always easy to spot,”
According to Creative London, part of the London Development Agency, the SE1 creative hub stretching along the River Thames from the Design Museum at Tower Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge is home to creative and cultural businesses that generate more than £600m in annual revenues.
As well as the dramatic impact the opening of the Tate Modern in 2000 and the redevelopment of Borough Market have had on the area, SE1 has also proved fertile ground for creative businesses because of the work of the Coin Street Community Builders, the not-for-profit development trust which has been regenerating 13 acres of prime land on London’s South Bank since 1984. The centrepiece of the original project is the renovated Oxo Tower in the former Stamford Wharf, which today boasts an array of fashionable restaurants and galleries conveniently located next to the former LWT building which is now home to one of the UK’s biggest media groups: the enlarged ITV.
But it is the influx of smaller companies that has the biggest impact on the areas. Marketing and media agency Spirit IC relocated from Covent Garden to Great Suffolk Street in Southwark before moving again to Winchester Walk near Borough Market. Mike Berry, managing director, says the rent in SE1 is less than £35 per square foot compared with the £45 per square foot he would expect to pay in Soho. “Clients did ask us why we wanted to move south of the river but the redevelopment of Borough Market has helped the image of the area. Of course, Covent Garden still has an emotional pull for our senior people,” says Mr Berry.
Maverick Marketing & Design also moved out of Soho to SE1. It went first to Shad Thames and is now in Weston Street in a building once home to London’s leather market. “Soho had become too expensive for us and I was worried about the safety of my staff,” says managing director Carron Edmonds. “There is a different ethos in this business nowadays and clients are no longer so impressed by a flash West End agency. And we are only a 10 minute walk from London Bridge.”
Also near London Bridge is PR and copywriting agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, which left Warwick Street in Soho in November for offices in Bermondsey Street. It doubled its office space for a third of the cost as its rent dropped to £23 per square foot.
Graham Hitchen, head of Creative London, is working closely with planning authorities to attract more creative businesses to SE1. “There is such a strong culture of creativity and art here already that businesses want to connect with the vibrancy of the area,” he says.
SE1 is not the only creative hub emerging out of Soho’s shadows. Creative London has identified 10 geographical areas, many outside central London, where non-profit organisations have a remit to support the creative industries. The thinking within local government is that attracting creative companies improves the image of an area, which will subsequently boost broader economic activity in a borough. For example, Creative North London – covering the boroughs of Barnet, Enfield, Haringey and Waltham Forest – earlier this month launched a 280-studio complex in Wood Green. Other similar centres will be launched around the capital next year.
East London is also tempting creative businesses. Advertising giants Mother and Wieden & Kennedy have moved from Soho to designer offices in Shoreditch where rents are around £20 per square foot.
Meanwhile one of London’s newest film and television production companies Spectrecom Films set up in SE8 at Deptford Creek in the summer rather than join its rivals in Soho, Acton or Park Royal.
Andrew Greener, managing director, acknowledges that being the only studio in this part of London is a risk. “Deptford is very affordable at just £4.50 per square foot and, as a low budget area, it could take off like Hoxton did a few years ago. The low rents mean we can be extremely competitive when trying to entice new clients,” he says.
Another organisation nurturing creative hubs around London is the Centre for Creative Business, the 18-month old joint venture between the London Business School and University of the Arts London. Greg Orme, chief executive and former ITN programme editor, says clustering of creative businesses is vital to the future success of the industry. “The creative sector nationally is growing at between 6 per cent and 8 per cent a year and because it is leveraging people and their skills their proximity to each other is incredibly important,” he says.
So what about those companies that refuse to leave the comfort zone of Soho? Advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty is based in Kingly Street, W1, and Derek Robson, managing director, argues the agency would suffer if it moved. “Our clients and staff want the agency to be central and we are close to all the facilities we need,” he says. “Some of our heritage would also be lost if we left the area. I believe every creative company would choose to be in Soho if it could afford to be.”
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