London Road: let’s repeat the successes of Shoreditch, while avoiding its failures

At the end of last year, The Argus ran a story comparing Brighton’s London Road to Shoreditch in London.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to choke on my coffee when reading this headline; at first glance, it seems ludicrous to compare the two places.

For a start, Shoreditch and its environs (Old Street, Hoxton, Dalston) together make up a pretty sizeable chunk of East London; in contrast, London Road is just that – one road.

And while the re-imagining of Shoreditch has so far involved a welter of new hotels, office blocks, clubs, bars and art galleries, London Road has seen little more than a couple of renovated pubs and a few coffee shops.

Old Street Silicon Rounddabout

The ‘Silicon Roundabout’ near Shoreditch is home to many startups and large technology firms. Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA

On the other hand, if we expand the London Road district to also include the North Laine, there are some definite parallels between the two areas – one being that both are hotbeds for startups and new media businesses.

The Shoreditch area of London has been dubbed ‘Tech City’ by the government, reflecting a rapid increase in the number of technology-related businesses being created in the area.

The epicentre for this is Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout, where agile startup companies rub shoulders with major tech firms such as Google and Amazon.

While not on the same scale, the London Road/North Laine district has seen a similar rise in new companies specialising in areas such as software development and digital marketing.

Companies such as Brandwatch and iCrossing are home‑grown success stories, and the decision of a large US technology company to establish a presence in Brighton may be a sign that the city’s tech sector has reached critical mass.

The tech cluster in Shoreditch owes some of its success to its large population of young people, many of whom are immigrants from around the world; economist Douglas McWilliams argues in his book ‘The Flat White Economy’ that this mixing of cultures is a crucial factor in encouraging innovation.

Astoria Theatre

The disused Astoria Theatre near London Road, which has recently been bought by the Student Housing Company

Likewise, the streets around London Road are already home to a large number of students from the city’s two universities, many of whom are from overseas.

This population looks set to increase with the recent completion of the Abacus House student accommodation, and the purchase of the defunct Astoria Theatre by The Student Housing Company.

However, while there is much about Shoreditch that can be held up as an example of good practice, its success has come at a cost.

Living space in the area is much in demand, and rising house prices mean that Shoreditch is now unaffordable for many of the students and young creative types that helped to build its reputation as a centre for art and culture.  Soaring office rents are forcing many startups out of the area.

There have also been warnings that Shoreditch is at risk of ‘Canary Wharf-isation’ as developers rush to build skyscrapers to cash in on the district’s popularity.

There is a lesson here for Brighton and Hove City Council as they consider the future of the city’s technology cluster.  While they would be right to encourage further growth, care must be taken to avoid pricing current residents out of the area.

In order to ensure that London Road remains a haven for students and young professionals at the start of their careers, it is vital that we build more affordable housing and office space.  This way we will echo Shoreditch’s success, without repeating its failures.

Nimby or cultural guardian?

Today I want to write about one of the main struggles going on in Brighton and Hove today: the struggle between those who are for greater development, and those against it.

This is a struggle is played out in the pages of The Argus, in the chambers of the local council, and on the streets as campaigners use petitions and protests to block new supermarkets or blocks of flats from being built.

In the four years I’ve been renting in Brighton, I have had to contend with all manner of terrible, terrible homes. I’ve lived with damp, mould, peeling wallpaper, woodlouse infestations and more. Pretty much every student and young professional I’ve spoken to has similar horror stories.

Demand for all types of housing in Brighton and Hove far outstrips supply, and the city’s council estimated in a recent housing strategy document that more than 17,000 new affordable homes will need to be built by 2017. Yet in the face of this monumental challenge, there have been a steady stream of articles in the press about developments that have been cancelled or sent back to the drawing board due to objections by local residents. Kingsnorth book pic

Until recently, I fumed every time I read one of these stories.  “What?”, I cried, “you don’t want a new apartment complex because it overlooks your house?  You’re rejecting the new offices because they don’t suit the character of your area?!?” Brighton desperately needs new homes, and there are a lot of people who would benefit from the jobs created by new shops or offices – I just couldn’t understand how people could be selfish enough or blind enough to ignore the needs of thousands of their fellow residents.

I would in the past have dismissed these people as ‘nimbies’ who put their own happiness ahead of others, but after reading the book ‘Real England‘ by Paul Kingsnorth, I recognise that things are actually a lot more complicated.

Kingsnorth argues that England’s unique character, and the traditions that tie people to the land they live in, are being steadily wiped out by an unholy partnership of big corporations and government.  He threatens that unless we halt this juggernaut, we will all soon be living in ‘clone towns’ that boast identical high streets populated with chain stores and nothing else.

I won’t say that after reading this book I’m a total convert to the cause of conservationism in Brighton.  But the book has made me think twice about our sense of place.  Brighton is a unique town, and its independent shops and beautiful Georgian architecture bring delight to many every year.

The challenge for the council going forwards will be to distinguish between the nimbies – people who protest against new development because they are afraid of its affects on their house price – and those who genuinely care about the character of the city.  Because one thing’s for sure – the housing crisis in Brighton is something that is only going to get worse unless we take action.

Off we go!

When I started thinking about this blog, I was put off by the (as it turns out, false) assumption that there would be millions of blogs out there celebrating life in Brighton.

A bit of research later, and it seems that although there are tons of specialist blogs, there’s not much in the way of a general celebration of what makes this city – two if you count Brighton and Hove – so special.

I should admit right at the outset that I was born just outside of Cardiff and grew up from the age of around two as a Londoner, only moving to Brighton at the age of 18. Being a Londoner has a certain flair to it – as well as a large number of downsides (which it might be fun to go into in a separate blog post) – but I never really felt at home there as much as I do in Brighton.

That’s probably something to do with the size of the place.  I was well into my teenage years before I even set foot into true North London, notwithstanding a few rambunctious outings to Camden.  Imagine that – it took me around 15 years to make it halfway across that behemoth of a place.

London is ridiculously vast, but the fact is that very few people live in its glitzy centre, the one that tourists love to visit and take pictures of.  The real living is usually done in suburbs that are miles away from the heart of London and frankly, all look a bit the same.

But what a contrast when I came to Brighton.  While at first it seemed pint-sized compared to London, as I continued exploring I found that the city continued to open up like a set of Russian dolls.  It seemed like around every corner there was another quirky bar, another piece of amazing street art, another eccentric character wearing or doing something completely out of the ordinary.

More than this, though: I found somewhere with its own sense of identity.  Brighton and Hove (note the ‘and’) may at times seem to be a fractured, incoherent city – something that is echoed throughout the Greater Brighton area as hippies rub shoulders with middle managers, muesli mums with the digerati – but underneath this there is a common bond.

I believe most inhabitants of the city are proud of its diversity. I also find the tensions that exist between the different tribes of Brighton truly fascinating.  Those tensions are being played out all around us, as the city undergoes a period of serious redevelopment in order to find housing for the thousands who flock to this community by the sea.

This blog will be my attempt to make sense of the beautiful and at times absurd place I live in.  It will also be an account of one twentysomething graduate’s attempt to navigate the rocky waters of adult life.  It will also, sometimes, just be a rant against various things (Brighton-related or not) that really get on my wick. Enjoy!