To The Centre Of The City, In The Night

Live arts should be the throbbing heartbeat of any city.

Cultural opportunities, the creative arts and a vibrant night-life are obviously a big reason why those who are the basis of the local economy and its growth, particularly young professionals, choose to put down their roots in a place.

Venues and studios for independent creative arts – for bands, performers and artists to play, rehearse, create – are the petri dish from which something grows that comes to define a city, that may become a mainstream business, employer and exporter in its own right (and we are increasingly in a world where the creative arts and tech are intertwining, making this even more likely).

I’m not talking of dead cultural artefacts, Government money for another Beatles attraction in Liverpool, I’m talking about the between-spaces, the meanwhile-uses, the forgotten-buildings, the spaces-set-aside-by-enlightened-owners – where (at low cost and with a looser set of constraints), from apparently unpromising seeds, flowers bloom.

This is personal for me – it may be for you too. I grew up in Southampton and it was all about the local music venues – seeing people like me 12 feet away on a foot-high stage, then trying it myself, amateur hour or what? – and then about choosing London as my university town, yes for the music and culture – got to confess it wasn’t at that point for the employment opportunities. Where I then stayed, for decades.

As I’ve gradually moved away in time and distance from all this, I’ve realised more and more how important grassroots/independent culture is – not just in the way that it provides a channel for young people to express the raw creativity that we all have before it’s schooled and worked out of us and which often is the most powerful (for being honest) form of artistic expression – but also how important it is for cities and towns themselves. Nowhere should end up as a husk, an artefact, a collection of once interesting buildings and not much else.

We’re going to have a discussion about all of this at a Clubhouse session at 5pm on Monday 1 November, at which I’m so glad that I will be joined by people who know much more than me about how to make culture thrive in cities. Clara Cullen is venue support manager at the Music Venue Trust, which exists to help protect, secure and improve grassroots music venues across the UK. Tom Clarke is national planning advisor at the Theatres Trust, which seeks to protect the future of live performance (of all kinds), by protecting and supporting theatre buildings which meet the needs of their communities (he’s also a live music nut). Stacey Adamiec is a strategic place maker, working with agents, landlords and authorities to create flexi and creative spaces. And most poignantly for me, we have Richard Williams. Richard at one time was leader of Southampton City Council but this is nothing to do with that. In 1981 he released a compilation album of tracks recorded by Southampton bands, called City Walls. It was my last year at home before heading to London – I loved that album as a snapshot in time and place. He then wrote a book about the process of getting it together, “A Curry With John Peel”, and then, this year, 40 years on (40 years!) he released another album of tracks by today’s Southampton bands, City Walls 2. To compare and contrast is fascinating. I am so looking forward to the discussion and very much hope that you can join us – details at the end of this blog post.

It’s been tough for grassroots venues. With conflicting needs for land, given the understandable pressure for brownfield sites to secure housing and employment development; with  less and less public funding, nationally or locally, and then in this recent time of pandemic, fear and lockdown.

But in recent years there have at least been some signs of light.

The “asset of community value” designation process introduced by the Localism Act 2011 has helped many venues (eg Heaven, Brixton’s Club 414, Guildford’s Boileroom, the Birds Nest in Deptford, Half Moon in Herne Hill and the After Dark club in Reading to name just a few) but of course the designation ultimately is more of a nudge than providing any absolute protection.

To have the “agent of change” principle included within national planning policy back in July 2018 was a big step forward. In the current NPPF this is paragraph 187:

Planning policies and decisions should ensure that new development can be integrated effectively with existing businesses and community facilities (such as places of worship, pubs, music venues and sports clubs). Existing businesses and facilities should not have unreasonable restrictions placed on them as a result of development permitted after they were established. Where the operation of an existing business or community facility could have a significant adverse effect on new development (including changes of use) in its vicinity, the applicant (or ‘agent of change’) should be required to provide suitable mitigation before the development has been completed.

Last year, in response to the pandemic, work by the Theatres Trust and others secured two important additional protections for concert halls, venues for live performance and theatres:

• A ministerial statement on 14 July 2020 confirming that venues should be protected, at least for a temporary period, against land owners seeking to argue lack of viability based on the then precarious financial position that many were in:

The Government recognises that the temporary closure of theatres, concert halls and live music performance venues due to Covid-19 has the potential to lead to permanent loss of important cultural and economic assets, and is determined that otherwise viable facilities are not lost forever.

The purpose of this Written Ministerial Statement, is to set out how local planning authorities should approach decision-making to prevent the unnecessary loss of these venues. With immediate effect, local planning authorities should have due regard to their current circumstances when considering whether to grant planning permission for a change of use or demolition of a theatre, concert hall or live music performance venue that has been made temporarily vacant by Covid-19 business disruption.

Where an alternative use or demolition for a long-term vacant theatre, concert hall or live music performance venue is proposed, local planning authorities should consider the application in the normal way. The Theatres Trust is a statutory consultee under the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015 (S.I 2015/595) for applications seeking to develop any land where there is a theatre and will have an opportunity to comment on any application relating to theatres.

This policy remains in place until 31 December 2022 unless superseded by a further statement.”

• A change to the General Permitted Development Order on 9 November 2020, meaning that planning permission is now needed for their demolition, in the same way as had previously been introduced for pubs.

I’ll leave others to comment on whether the measures in this week’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review were sufficient but obviously there were various announcements which are potentially relevant:

• “£1.7 billion worth of projects to upgrade local infrastructure through the first bidding round of the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund

• “the first 21 projects to benefit from the £150 million Community Ownership Fund – which will help communities across the UK protect and manage their most treasured assets. This investment puts community priorities at its core and will improve the local infrastructure crucial to everyday life, such as transport and town centres.”

• “Tax reliefs for museums, galleries, theatres and orchestras will further support the cultural life of towns and cities across the UK”.

• “a new temporary business rates relief for eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties for 2022-23. Eligible properties will receive 50% relief, up to a £110,000 per business cap

• “funding the £800 million Live Events Reinsurance Scheme

The Government’s long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper will apparently provide additional proposals. I’m conscious that in many ways this shouldn’t all be about the Government, whose most important role may simply be to “do no harm”. There are an increasing number of important voices and organisations – aside from the Music Venue Trust and Theatres Trust and many other groups, in London of course since 2016 Amy Lamé has been our first “night czar” and able to cast a light on important underlying issues – including the safety of women out at night, and the return of the night tube (from 27 November).

But what more do we need to see, across the country (and in towns as well as cities)?

Do join us at 5pm on Monday – we can chew over all of this, led by our special guests, but hopefully share our own stories about how important grassroots live venues and indie city culture more generally are/have been for us, our families and communities. Just talking about the music is also fine! Link to app here.

Simon Ricketts, 28 October 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Extract from photo by Sebastian Ervi , courtesy of Unsplash.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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