London’s music venues are recovering – but business rate review could stop them in their tracks

A woman dances in a nightclub. Image: Getty.

Much has been written about the revaluation of business rates and their impact up and down the country. Due to an outcry from a number of sectors and business lobbying groups, not least the CBI, the chancellor is considering measures to relieve those facing the highest increases. (In his recent Budget, indeed, he gave pubs a rebate of up to £1,000, though he did nothing for other sectors.)

Most of the businesses worst affected are in zones 1 and 2 in London, where property has, in some cases, doubled in value since the last valuation was conducted in 2008. And it is the independent retail and commercial sector that will feel these rises the most. A large high street chain can shoulder a rate increase of between 25 and 30 per cent; an independent cafe or restaurant often can't. Such an increase, after all, could mean an extra bill of up to £15,000 for a mid-sized premises. That would be enough to close an independent pizza shop, but allow Pizza Express to survive. 

Of these independent businesses that are most threatened, at the top of the list are our grassroots music venues and nightclubs. Over the past ten years, 50 per cent of London's nightclubs have closed, along with 35 per cent of its music venues.

In fact, there have recently been some signs of recovery in the ecosystem. Last month, the Greater London Authority published a report that found there had been no net loss of venues in 2016, a first since 2007. A few new venues have even opened, including The Soundlounge in Tooting, Sankeys East in Romford and, at the end of March, Soul Store West in Kilburn.

Now this rates rise threatens to derail this progress. And there remains something rotten in the way we value these places: when assessing and calculating their rates, we don’t consider their cultural or economic value. These premises are the incubators of the sector, each investing £500,000 directly into new and emerging talent each year. And yet, unlike community centres and libraries, for example, little relief is offered that recognises the benefits these places and spaces bring to their communities. 

Indeed, instead of recognising this value, we are doing the opposite. Take The Lexington, in Islington. In the past, it's hosted many artists who you wouldn't have heard of at the time, but almost certainly would have now. Yet the value of the land the venue sits on has increased significantly, increasing the value of the property and thus its business rate. (It's a similar system to council tax.)


There's another penalty: rates recategorisation often means an increase in annual alcohol licence fees that can also run into thousands of pounds. Paying for that means selling more alcohol, which puts pressure on the businesses to stop providing the unprofitable live music aspect. And so The Lexington, instead of being a music venue and community asset, becomes a solely alcohol-led premises, similar to a chain pub or bar.

All this is compounded by the way that venues in London are being penalised for their success in regenerating its town centres. Cafe Oto opened at a time when Dalston town centre was not as desirable as it is now. Its contribution to the local community – along with those of many other businesses and entrepreneurs – has led to Dalston changing and becoming more desirable. Yet Cafe Oto and the like have not been recognised as agents of change and arbiters of community cohesion; instead, the work they've done merely means the land they sit on has become more expensive, and so their rates are going up.

There is no standard classification of music venues and nightclubs in the system by which we assess rateable value: they not categorised as a particular type of business, so their floor space is assessed not on its need to welcome an audience, but on its size and its capacity to sell enough alcohol to fill that space. Yes, venues and nightclubs often live or die on their ability to sell alcohol, but without the music – the culture – people wouldn’t be drinking that alcohol in the first place. Yet this is not recognised: their cultural value is ignored, and venues are made to pick up the tab in more ways the one.

It would be best if such places were assessed for what they are, rather than being lumped into a general categorisation that more often than not impacts them negatively. They should all pay business rates – this is the only way core services can be delivered – but increases in those rates should take account of their community benefit, and recognise their cultural value. 

If we don’t take a good hard look at how our classification and rating systems measures music venues and nightclubs – or cultural infrastructure in general – we  will lose these places. The recent spate of good news will disappear, and we’ll be back to hearing about venue closures in London and beyond.  

And the same argument applies to other sectors, too: if we don't recognise the value of independent cafes, there is a danger that rate rises will one day mean that Costa Coffee is the only place that'll sell you a flat white. 

The author would like to thank Niall Forde, the Music Venue Trust and Nordicity for support in writing this article. 

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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