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London Mayor launches strategy to save music venues – it is too late?

It may be too late for many of the city’s landmark venues, but London Mayor Boris Johnson has finally thrown his weight behind the capital’s music industry – and especially the much needed Agent Of Change principle.
Boris Johnson, Mayor Of LondonMany venues – up to a third of those which existed a decade ago in London alone – have been forced to close: not just due to financial pressures, but also partially due to an antiquated planning system which puts the onus on venues to justify their existence, and fight for (more often than not unsuccessfully) their survival.  Basically, English law means that if someone builds, say, an apartment block next door to a rock club or bar then the onus is on the venue owner to ensure that there is no nuisance to their new neighbours:  the costs of soundproofing, etc., have proven prohibitive to many businesses and has driven them under as a result.  Of course, it’s not the only reason for venue closures – far from it – but it has been a major contributing factor on the UK mainland.
Now, let’s turn our attention to Northern Ireland.  A wee part of these islands traditionally – and quite rightly, in many cases – seen as being backward and lackadaisical in terms of following our UK counterparts in introducing socially and economically important legislation.  But, the Agent Of Change principle has been enshrined in building control and entertainments licensing legislation here for more than 40 – yes, that’s FORTY – years.  So, basically, if you want to build an apartment block or an office or whatever – or even move into a house – beside a music venue that’s been here for longer than you’ve left your mother’s titty, then you’re the one that has to accommodate the venue.  Not the other way round.
So,  Boris Johnson has now thrown his weight (and very naff, strictly non-metal haircut) behind the campaign to halt the drop in the number of music venues in the capital by embracing the Agent Of Change principle – among a raft of other measures designed to “save” the capital’s “dying” music scene.
According to a report issued by the Mayor’s office, London has lost 35 per cent of its grassroots music venues since 2007  – and “it is feared that if this decline continues it could have major implications for the long term future of a creative and cultural sector that feeds into the UK’s £3.8 billion music industry”.
Proposals put forward by the Mayor include support for the Agent of Change principle, which puts the onus on developers to mitigate potential future conflicts between new developments and long-standing live venues; a night time economy champion to promote the merits of a sector that in the UK is worth £66 billion a year; and a London Music Development Board to take forward an action plan to protect grassroots music venues in the capital.
A new report, the ‘Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan’, produced by the Mayor’s Music Venues Taskforce, suggests that whilst London’s music industry is generating billions for the economy, a vital part of this important cultural as well as economic sector is under threat.  The taskforce, set up by the Mayor earlier this year and chaired by the Music Venue Trust, has undertaken an audit of grassroots music venues and found that, from 2007 and 2015, London has seen the number of spaces programming new artists has dropped from 136 to just 88 today.
Mayor Johnson said of the report: “From the Rolling Stones to David Bowie, the Clash to Oasis and Ed Sheeran to Adele, grassroots music venues have played a key role in enabling some of the biggest names in music to develop as artists and to build audiences. They are the incubators for the stars that go on to pack stadiums in London and across the world. The Music Venues Taskforce report makes it clear that protecting live music venues is crucial to London’s continued position as the music capital of the world. This timely report will shape our long term action plan to safeguard and revive London’s vital network of live music venues, ensuring the future of the capital’s culturally and economically important music scene.”
A press release issued by Mayor Johnson states:  “Iconic names that have disappeared over the last few years include the Marquee, the Astoria, the 12 Bar Club and Madame Jojos, with dozens of other important venues closing down beyond central London. The Rescue Plan identifies a range of factors for grassroots music venues closing and continuing to be under threat. This includes rising rents and licensing restrictions; noise complaints by resident; landlords selling venues to developers to turn into housing; and the lack of an oversight body to represent the industry when issues like these arise.”
Singer/songwriter Frank Turner, who is an advisor to the Music Venues Taskforce, comments: “I moved to London at age 18 to make my way in music. Since then the city and its scene has changed a lot, and not always for the best. I’ve seen a lot of the venues that gave me the chance to experiment and grow as an artist disappear. Without the spaces for new talent to discover itself and its audience, music in London will die a slow death, and the UK will lose a huge part of its culture. Something needs to be done to protect these spaces.”
Mark Davyd, who chairs the Music Venues Trust Taskforce, added: “Chairing the Taskforce has been a great opportunity for Music Venue Trust to quantify and clarify the challenges music venues across the country are facing, which is so apparent in London. Working with the Mayor’s team music industry and venue representatives has given us chance to speak up for grassroots music venues, clearly explaining why they are so important to the future of British music and why London needs to be their flagship.”
The Mayor’s press release goes on to say:  “The Music Venues Rescue Plan notes that there are forward-thinking developers that recognise grassroots music venues can add community value and improve a project’s image. They include Cathedral Group’s Old Vinyl Factory development at Hayes, Benson Elliot’s plans for Ealing Broadway and Consolidated Developments’ plans for Denmark Street. All include new or redeveloped live music venues, with the music venue treated as a community and cultural asset that adds to the place-making impact of each scheme.
“The report was launched this morning in historic Denmark Street, which for decades has been associated with the music industry, and is where work is about to begin on central London’s first new purpose built live music venue in decades. Plans by the developer – Consolidated Developments – include creating a new venue underground, next to the new Crossrail Station. They also propose to retain the former 12 Bar as a grassroots live music venue and to add a brand new underground gig space to the building. Consolidated are working with the GLA and Camden Council to make Denmark Street a thriving ‘Music Zone’ in the heart of London.”
The release continued to say that “the Mayor is taking forward a number of measures to protect grassroots music venues across the capital and safeguard a sector that is worth £600 million in music tourism alone”.  These include:
  • Support the application of Agent of Change principles. An idea that has proven successful in Australia and Canada, the Agent of Change principle puts the onus on the developer to mitigate against future problems that might emerge between newcomers to an area and a longstanding local venue, for example over noise complaints. This was used to enable the Ministry of Sound to remain open. City Hall has already included advice on implementing the Agent of Change principle in the Draft Central Activities Zone Supplementary Planning Guide (SPG).
  • A champion for the night time economy. Based on a model established in the Netherlands, the Mayor’s Office will investigate the potential of a night economy champion to bring together businesses, residents, local authorities, transport, police and emergency services to build positive relationships, review policies and maximise the potential of a sector that in the UK is worth £66 billion a year.
  • Set up a London Music Development Board, which will take over the work that the Taskforce has started and implement the recommendations in the Rescue Plan. It will be made up of representatives from London’s music industry, venues, licensing authorities, police, planning departments and transport authorities, as well as cultural sector funders.The Mayor is publishing a Culture and Planning Guide, jargon-free advice for the music and culture sectors on how planning policy can protect music and cultural venues.
  • City Hall is also hosting a symposium on 26 October, bringing together developers, planners, architects, local authorities and cultural organisations to look at best practice and ensure that culture is at the forefront of decisions over planning and development.

The release concludes:

“The Mayor’s Office will continue to work closely with local authorities, developers and the music industry to encourage a pro-culture approach, particularly in areas where there are music zones and clusters for example Camden, Denmark Street, Hackney and Soho.”

The London’s Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan and the Mayor’s response can be downloaded from www.london.gov.uk/musicvenues. An action plan taking forward recommendations will be published in early 2016.
Will it be a case of too little too late?  Is government intervention the answer?  Maybe.  It has worked elsewhere.  Then again, it hasn’t.  We’ll wait and see.  In the meantime, we at PlanetMosh will keep the metal flag flying high and proud, supporting our local bands and venues.  Hell, we might even let old Boris buy one of our limited edition new tenth anniversary T shirts.
  • Photograph of Boris Johnson courtesy of www.london.gov.uk

About Mark Ashby

no longer planetmosh staff