A sanctuary for creativity amid London’s property squeeze

Subsidised flats are addressing fear that capital is losing arty buzz

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Of all the risks facing London, argues Ben Rogers, “the one we should probably take most seriously, is the prospect of the city losing its buzz”.

Mr Rogers, son of the architect Richard Rogers and head of the Centre for London think-tank, is concerned about the musicians, painters, actors, designers and other artistic individuals who populate the UK capital’s cultural scene but struggle to afford a home.

Other British cities such as Bristol or Edinburgh get a boost when these Londoners are forced into exile, argues Mr Rogers: “But they are just as likely to end up in Barcelona or Berlin, which will be bad for the UK.”

So bad that the workers who keep London’s cultural life “buzzing” should have priority status?

Jon Gooding, chief executive of housing charity Dolphin Living, believes so. He is making discounted rental flats available to a broader range of toilers than the nurses, teachers, police and other public sector employees whose accommodation has been subsidised since the late 1990s, when Labour ministers introduced the concept of key-worker housing.

Founded with the £125m proceeds from the sale of the Dolphin Square art deco mansion flats in Pimlico, Dolphin Living concentrates on new buildings in the central borough of Westminster, “an area many have given up on”, says Mr Gooding. Because of this tight focus on locations near entertainment and arts hotspots, the charity feels responsible for those with jobs or careers that enrich London’s cultural life.

The capital makes £3bn a year from cultural tourism, according to the Mayor’s office. Without the dancers, singers, artists and digital whizz-kids, Mr Gooding believes, as well as chefs, gallery attendants, stage hands and nightclub doormen, that figure would be lower and the capital less exciting.

By the end of the decade, Dolphin Living aims to fill 1,000 subsidised, low-rent apartments in fashionable areas including Soho’s Broadwick Street.

“It’s the theatres and the restaurants spilling out in Soho that make the place,” says Mr Gooding. “But my worry is, where are all the doormen, the ticket sellers, the kitchen hands, supposed to lay their head at 2am?”

Redefining key workers is controversial — tenants refused to be interviewed for this article, aware perhaps that they might not be seen as deserving cases.

“We are used to not being prioritised for properties or given a look in because of what we do,” an actress and her stage hand partner wrote to the charity, thanking it for its support.

But Dolphin Living has been shortlisted for a social housing innovation award and some campaigners agree that the list of jobs with special housing status is ripe for re-evaluation.

“Commendable,” says Gavin Smart, policy director at the Chartered Institute of Housing. “They’ve set a strategy specific to a geographical area, to keep that bit of London working.”

In a gleaming new block in the King's Cross regeneration area, Dolphin Living studios and apartments have been allocated to almost as many tenants in creative industries as in healthcare: tenants include arts administrators, digital designers and a jewellery maker.

The Soho flats are being filled over the next few weeks, with the lowest rents sets at £170 per week — about 25 per cent of the market rate.

With housing at a severe shortage in London, Mr Smart points out that expanding the eligibility criteria for key worker homes is not without consequences: “Any interventions usually change the order of the queue and others will be disadvantaged as a result.’

But for Mr Gooding, as his team considers the next batch of applications, the case is clear: “All these people are making a contribution to London’s success.”

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