Three creative professionals discuss why they left London for cheaper climes. Reporter – Steff Humm. Sub editor – Amie Filcher.
London has long been considered one of the cultural capitals of the world because of its 2,000-year history, world-renowned theatre scene and revered selection of museums and galleries. In September 2014 it also took over from Hong Kong as the most expensive city to live and work.
Playwright Simon Stephens, speaking at the launch of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2015, has warned that the capital will soon be “empty of artists” because the cost of living is too high for people pursuing financially insecure careers in creative industries such as art, music and drama.
“I think London is becoming unsustainable as a city for artistic creativity, because it’s so expensive,” The Stage reported him saying as part of a panel discussion on the benefits of the Bruntwood Prize-winning play abandoning the capital in favour of Manchester this year. “London could become like Manhattan: a very beautiful, empty place.”
Building a career
Despite the undeniable financial difficulties tied to living in the most expensive city on Earth, many artists feel at the start of their careers that it is an essential place to be.
“There is a sense that you have to be in London when you are building a career, because everyone else starts there,” says Hull-born actor Matt Sutton, who trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in Swiss Cottage. “You don’t want to feel ‘outside of things’. You want to feel that you are up to speed and in flow with the industry.
“Even when you’re not working or trying to get it, you are watching others in plays and shows and trying to keep your finger on the cultural pulses. There is more to see in London in terms of sheer volume but also variety.”
Fellow actor and northerner, Lee Clotworthy, 33, who worked as a carpenter while taking drama classes in Liverpool before going on to study at Aberystwyth University, agrees that the capital has a particular draw for thespians:
“I moved to London because I thought that was the place to be. I knew it was going to be a struggle… but there’s more opportunities there for theatre, fringe and big stage.”
Actors aren’t the only artists who head south east to seek their fortune. Dan Gardiner, a 21-year-old freelance VFX artist from Devon, claims that it was “definitely the best place” for him to be.
“London is the hub – in England, some say in Europe, for VFX so I always thought it was the best place to move to. All the VFX companies are in London – specifically in Soho. They are all half a mile away from each other.”
Surviving the prices
Part of the reason for the increase in the cost of living, according to real estate adviser Savills, is “real estate price growth” for homes and offices, which rose by 18.4 percent between 2013 and 2014 – a significant problem for lower earning practitioners in the arts who are trying to develop their careers in London but can’t easily earn their expanding monthly rent.
When Dan Gardiner was first offered a job at the VFX company Framestore in Soho his hours were erratic and didn’t provide him with the income to make the permanent move from his parents’ home in Exeter.
“I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do,” he says. “I couldn’t ask my brand new workmates – the only people I knew in London – if I could stay with them. Hotels were a bit too expensive – I opted for youth hostels and started booking into them.”
If he couldn’t secure a room in a hostel, Gardiner, who was 18 at the time, would simply work through the night.
“One time I did it three nights in a row before I collapsed on the sofa and slept through. It was quite lonely.”
The living wage in London has now reached £9.15 per hour. This is the amount calculated that an individual requires to feed, clothe and house themselves in the city.
However, this figure is often more than the creatively inclined are able to earn. The National Minimum Wage in the UK is just £6.50 per hour, which is what many people can expect to receive for jobs such as retail work and positions in the food service industry.
“I think actors get stuck in this rut,” says Lee Clotworthy. “Especially in London, where you need to have a flexible job but to have a flexible job means you have to be a waiter.”