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

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty

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.