Toronto shows how we can save Britain's music venues – and build more housing at the same time

London's George Tavern: one of the many British music venues under threat from developers. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

Over the last few weeks, four more grassroots music venues in London have been threatened with closure. This is on top of the over 80 that have closed across the capital since 2007; across the country, another 15 to 20 are currently under threat, from The Fleece in Bristol to The Sunflower in Belfast.

The main reasons for this lie in the way our built environment is changing across the country, and our need – perceived and actual – for more homes. But while we do need more housing, we don’t need it at all costs.

One venue in London, for example, is facing eviction because its freehold owner changed – and the new owner would rather sell up to housing developers than retain the venue. To some, this is understandable, but I find it difficult to stomach. It is happening too much and too often.

Whether it's the construction of new housing, or noise complaints resulting in a noise enforcement by the local authority, it is becoming a full-time job to respond to these threats on behalf of each threatened venue.  The problem is that there is only so much that one can do to assuage the problem. Often, planning consent and permissions have been given long before the venue falls into trouble. 

To give just one example, if land in a town centre has been given a certain use designation, an area action plan may prioritise housing over all other uses, even if it contains a historic venue.  As a result, if the planning consent isn’t actively geared towards the venue use, the focus on housing will inevitably gobble up vulnerable venues.

Some venues, as with all businesses, will inevitably fail. Nor should we treat every single situation with the same response. Some venues are cultural incubators, some provide significant economic benefit to the local area and some are of historical significance. But fighting each threat, one-by-one, feel much like spinning a hamster’s wheel.

But being part of the Mayor's Music Venue Task Force, the team tasked with responding to these threats, I’ve wondered if there are other models we could explore that support both housing and our venues and galleries. And I have a solution. It’s not one that will tackle the issues that those venues which already under threat are dealing with – but it is one that I hope will create a stronger, more collaborative atmosphere, that will hopefully reduce such issues five or ten years down the line.

The plan

My solution is at odds with the manner in which land and property is treated in the UK. At present, the value of the land is more important than what occurs inside the building. We must change this. Here’s an example of how.

In Toronto, my hometown, an organisation called Artscape has constructed a theatre and music venue in a former industrial area in the west of the city. Above that venue, it has also constructed a number of housing units, available both at market rate and, for a select number of artists, a subsidised rate. The units are tenanted as normal and Artscape, in this business model, becomes a de-facto housing association. The arts organisation becomes the landlord: the housing and the venue business are interlinked.

With modern noise attenuation technologies and careful people flow and management strategies, this works. A non-profit organisation bought the land, built the venue and the flats above it, and earns profit from both. It assists in programming the venue as well as stewarding the site. Here, you’re not sacrificing the venue for the sake of housing: both uses are treated equally.  


This can happen here.  A significant amount of land is owned across London and the UK by local councils and boroughs. Transport for London owns a substantial amount of land; so does Network Rail. Not all is suitable for our purposes, but enough is to experiment. We have already seen artist housing spring up in an old hotel in Haringey, for example. If a venue, or rehearsal space, or studio, or art gallery was bolted onto such a housing scheme, all sides could, in theory, benefit.

It may be difficult to envisage this working in large-scale, privately-owned developments, but elements of this idea could still be implemented. All developments need to abide by a variety of Section 106 obligations, and all benefit by providing a product geared towards the communities they are working with.

The problem as present is that, when it comes to how our built environment is constructed, we live in an either/or ecosystem: it is either profit or affordable housing, either commercial high footfall retail or leisure.

The government introduced an amendment in planning law called “permitted development”, which allows offices or pubs to be changed into housing (or vice-versa) with minimal consent. But this has only exacerbated the problem: uses are changed more quickly, making them even more singularly focused. That office is now housing, and only housing.

So I am on the lookout for land and buildings – both public and privately owned – where we can explore such a project. And I need partners and allies, because we need more suitable, community focused housing as well as more venues. Why not have both in the same location? We can increase density. We can contribute to town centre development. And we can make our built environment more environmentally and culturally friendly.

Because there are only so many venues we can save, and there is only so much time to respond to threats one-by-one. These closures will continue to happen – but we need new venues, fit for all purposes, from live music to yoga, theatre to comedy, to replace them.

And if we think our cultural spaces are as beneficial to society as assuaging our housing crisis, we need to make alternative models less alternative.

Dr Shain Shapiro is the managing director of Sound Diplomacy, a consultancy specialising in music cities and market development. 

 
 
 
 

Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”


In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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