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. 

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).