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Whose London Is It Anyway?

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This is Private Property, a Camden People’s Theatre production, running at 'Whose London Is It Anyway?' 9 – 31 January. by Helen Murray

Property development is threatening important cultural and community venues, writes Amber Massie-Blomfield.

Beds in sheds. Poor doors. Non-doms, mega mansions and benefit caps. London is changing faster than ever before. It’s something we’re acutely aware of at Camden People’s Theatre, and which we’re marking this month with Whose London Is It Anyway?, a festival of theatre, walks and talks exploring regeneration, the housing crisis, and the changing face of the capital.

It would be impossible for us to ignore the impact regeneration is having on our city. It’s on our doorstep. We’re situated a couple of hundred metres from Euston, the station due to become ‘Europe’s biggest building site’ if (/when) the proposed construction of the HS2 terminus begins. Thousands of local people – particularly those resident in social housing – are being ‘decanted’ from their homes for this high-speed rail system.

But it’s not solely homes that will be lost or changed. Parkland will be disappear. A local community centre is being closed. Half of the street we border – the iconic Drummond Street, which has a good claim to being the home of the best Indian food in the city – will be knocked down. Our beloved local boozer the Bree Louise will be no more. Even the top floors of our own building (council owned) will be converted into residential flats as part of the scheme.

Spaces like these – community centres, arts venues, pubs, churches, mosques – are the very heart beat of the city. We need contexts where we can come together to address our common concerns, where we can learn about one another and express our differences. Never is this more important than when communities are undergoing profound change, such as that brought about by regeneration.

Yet those driving these developments often seem blissfully, or perhaps willfully, unaware of their significance. The news is full of stories about places that have become woven into the fabric of London being closed or threatened with closure: Denmark Street, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Zest Soho. As processes of regeneration drive up rental prices, and local authorities succumb to central government pressure to sell ‘capital assets’, the position for many becomes untenable. In a system unable to read value in any terms other than monetary, we are at risk of losing sight of the role played by spaces that are not principally commercial in enabling people from all walks of life to coexist peaceably. The result may be a more divided, less secure society.

The silver lining for the arts community often presents in the availability of ‘meanwhile projects’ and ‘pop-up space’. At a time of increasing funding pressures, artists need cheap, easily accessible space to make their work, and property developers are all too happy to give it to them. Indeed, one of the prevalent trends in 21st century town planning has been for ‘creative economies’, inspired by Richard Florida’s The Creative Class, which proposes that a strong artistic presence increases the economic strength of an area. Setting aside the ethical complexities of artists becoming dependent on property developers in this way, these kind of schemes, in my view, don’t generally lend themselves to the creation of good art. As the name ‘pop-up’ implies, the work presented is often superficial, as easy to get rid of as it is to drop in, and with little integral connection to the communities and locale in which it are situated.

So what should we do about it? CPT’s Artistic Director, Brian Logan, has directed a new production called This Is Private Property as part of the festival. One of the characters posits that the most appropriate response might simply be to let the property developers have their way: to let them discover what it’s like to live in a sanitized city. For what is London without its cheap curry joints, its dive bars, its hip alternative theatre venues, its parks and its church halls? What is it without its nurses, waiters, artists, teachers and bin men, for that matter?

But we’re not giving up that easily. We believe it’s more necessary now than ever for theatre to do what it’s always done best: and that’s get a bunch of people together in a room to address the things that concern them. Visit us on the corner of Hampstead Road and Drummond Street this month, and, we hope, for many months and years to come, and you’ll find us doing exactly that.

Amber Massie-Blomfield is Executive Director of Camden People’s Theatre. Whose London Is It Anyway? runs at Camden People’s Theatre 9 – 31 January.

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