This year, the future of Britain's music venues was placed firmly on the political agenda

Adverts in Denmark Street, London's "tin pan alley". Image: Getty.

In early December, the opposition proposed an amendment to UK planning law. In addition, the Liberal Democrat Lord Clement Jones raised a debate in the House of Lords, focused on music venues.

The amendment was defeated. But its appearance in parliament – in both the Commons and the Lords – concludes a landmark year in understanding and dealing with the threats facing Britain’s grassroots music venues, and our music ecosystem as a whole.

First, we had to recognise a problem: Britain’s music venues are in trouble. And this trouble affects much more than the music staged in them. It impacts the cultural makeup of our cities, and moves our conception of value away from what happens inside a building, and onto how much the bricks and mortar are worth.

The debate concerning the profitability and viability of music venues has been going on since the birth of amplified music, of course. But 2015 was the year this debate crossed the bench from a music issue to a quality of life issue. A year ago, a debate on music venues in Parliament – a recognition of the value they represent in our cities – would have been unheard of.

It began with an audit conducted by the Music Venue Trust, who concluded that London – just London – saw a third of its venues disappearing in between 2007 and 2015. Other parts of the country, from Glasgow to Leeds, Cardiff to Newcastle, were seeing venues closures as well. A number of factors contributed to this, including noise issues, regeneration, management and the housing crisis.

At the same time, a number of club and restaurant owners in London formed the Night Time Industries Association, to speak against increasingly restrictive licensing on (mainly) independent venues. Together, a lobbying group was created to speak for music venues and nightclubs, similarly to the manner CAMRA campaigns for pubs. The panic button was activated.

We must understand the value our music venues and nightclubs have to our local economy. Each building is in and of itself an incubator, supporting as many businesses a tech startup hub. A successful establishment has bars, staging, lights, food, drink, security, and talent. Each of those is its own industry sector. Losing our venues meant losing our business as a whole.

Panic led to action, and action led to the identification of a culprit – Britain’s planning and licensing system. Amendments to planning law had emphasised housing over anything else, including music venues. Licensing restrictions crippled independent businesses. The cost of land – including rent, rates and tax – had made running a venue unviable. The venue, as we know it, became a market failure, despite it amplifying and supporting many other markets. Something needed to be done.

In London, with the help of UK Music, the industry trade body, the Music Venue Trust and the Greater London Authority created a task force to investigate venue closures. At the same time, Sheffield City Council commissioned a report on its music ecosystem. Similar debates began in Sunderland, Brighton and Cardiff.

To assist in communicating with policymakers, the Music Venue Trust defined what a “Grassroots Music Venue” is, compiling over 30 factors as to why they are, en masse, struggling. Now, that term meant something for policymakers – and a dialogue could be established to prove its value. A venue had been defined and communicated as a business hub, an IP incubator and a network developer. The language had changed.

Fast forward to October 2015. In less than a year, two parliamentary debates had recognised and discussed this issue. Two events were established to further the debate, Venues Day and the Music Cities Convention. A landmark report, the Rescue Plan for Live Music Venues in London, was released; its recommendations are now being debated and planned. And the role of our music venues have been debated at the Planning Officers Society and licensing authorities, and in council chambers up and down the country.

To understand all this, we must know how our cities are being planned. In the UK, the value of the land is more important than what happens inside the building – because planning law is written in such a way to favour private return over public good. Our city centres are emptying of artists, creating a generation of commuter-creators, who cannot afford to live in the areas that most demand their skills. The value of a venue as housing is significantly higher than it is as a place for staging bands or DJs.

Today, all levels of government are debating this issue. But venues are still threatened. Currently, eight face enforcement over noise, much of it coming via new developments built in close proximity.

The amendment proposed by Labour would adopt a guidance called the “Agent of Change” principle, which would shift responsibility to the developer, as long as the venue stays within its license. At the same time, a number of new venues are being planned across the country, from Denmark Street in the London’s West End, to the Royal Docks, to the MAC Quarter in Sunderland. London’s “Night Mayor”, a recommendation in the rescue plan, is likely to be announced soon; the night tube, an indicator of a shift towards an economy that operates around the clock, will create safer routes for people to get to and from where they want to go.

So as we look to 2016, we have a lot to be pleased about, but a lot of work still to do. For those like me who value our cities because of what’s in them, rather than how much each building is worth, we must continue to learn and speak the language needed to support our music venues and clubs.

Because the UK is a world leader in both our music and our cities. It is about time we put the two together.

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


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.