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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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.