The Blog

Get Me Some Chains for Christmas

Bluntly, Councils don't act to protect music venues faced with closure because they don't value them enough. They don't insist developers should protect them, because they don't understand how important they are.

I'm thinking of chaining myself to the doors of The Square in Harlow.

The modern town of Harlow was built as one of those new towns that we needed after the Second World War. It's fairly typical of the particular type of town that circles the outer limits of the commuter belt of London. With all due respect to the people who live there, it's not got a lot of claims to fame; it had the first pedestrian precinct and the first modern residential tower block, but it's not full of stunning architecture. I can't provide you with a long list of poets, writers or artists that were nurtured on the banks of the River Stort or called Hare Street their home - Rupert Grint is from Harlow, apparently. In 2009, the council invested quite a lot of money promoting the concept of "Harlow Sculpture Town - The World's First Sculpture Town", but I've never heard anybody say "I'm off to Harlow to look at the sculptures!" in an excited voice, and probably neither have you. It has a Labour Council and a Tory MP, that's how typical it is.

But what Harlow does have, and what it should be incredibly proud of, is The Harlow Square.

The Square is an unimpressive building which sits on Fourth Avenue in Harlow. It contains a 250 capacity music venue which, I hope the operators won't mind me saying, doesn't have the best lights, or the best stage in the UK, although the sound is fairly legendary for its excellence despite the small size. On that stage, underneath those lights, in the last 35 or more years, you could have seen Blur. And Coldplay. The Damned. Frank Turner. The Libertines. Muse. Enter Shikari.

More importantly, you could have seen thousands of bands that never became household names, never 'made it' in the terms of the music industry, but who were given the chance to do something creative, to be part of a culture, to socialise with like minded people and form friendships that would last a lifetime. To those bands, and the audiences that saw them, the Square isn't about the naff building or the lighting or the dodgy support band. It was a place to have ideas, dreams, plans and schemes.

And all that planning, thinking, dreaming and scheming will come to an end on 31 December 2015. Because on that day the Harlow Square will be permanently closing for the site to be redeveloped, and neither the developer, or the town council, or the MP has put forward any plan to relocate it or replace it. Unlike the labelling of "Harlow Sculpture Town", it appears that nobody in any position of power has ever thought about the one cultural activity they've got that makes them stand out. The one thing that has successfully put Harlow on t-shirts, posters, and in magazines for over thirty years: Music.

Like thousands of other music fans, I've been to Harlow many times. And it wasn't to see the sculptures. But there's no plan to start promoting "Harlow Music Town", with a suitably huge budget to ensure facilities and promotion, because Harlow demonstrates what music venues up and down the country can tell you is their own experience; they are unrecognised by the local authority, undervalued by the cultural sector. In all too many cases, they go unprotected as a result of both, and it is this lack of understanding of their value which is one of the key drivers of the wave of closures we have seen in the last ten years.

Bluntly, Councils don't act to protect music venues faced with closure because they don't value them enough. They don't insist developers should protect them, because they don't understand how important they are.

In a recent debate in Parliament on the Housing and Planning Bill, an amendment was brought forward by the Shadow Secretary of State Michael Dugher MP which would have protected music venues in law. Brandon Lewis MP, the Planning Minister, declining to adopt the amendment, said "new clauses are not needed because the planning powers are already there; we just have to make sure they are properly used". But there are no plans to make local authorities use them properly, nor any campaign by central government to persuade Councils as to the value of grassroots music venues.

As the Bristol Fleece and Bristol City Council found out to their cost, even trying to use the existing powers involves heavy investment in legal fees, and ultimately the developer won. After Bristol City Council properly used the planning powers to protect the venue, exactly as Brandon Lewis suggested, the developer simply appealed the decision and every single one of the measures put in place to protect an existing business was thrown out; there is no protection for the music venue in the development. Inevitably, there will be complaints. Those complaints will be the financial responsibility of the venue, that's going to endanger the future of the Fleece. We can adopt policies that change that, or we can sit on our hands bemoaning further closures and hoping somebody wins next time.

Changing the way that our elected representatives and the cultural sector treat and respect our grassroots music venues is a longstanding battle that the Music Venue Trust will make its key aim in 2016.

In 2015, there have been a huge number of breakthroughs for venues; a report in London that created a framework to support them; the creation of a Trade Association to start renegotiating terms with suppliers, services and the music industry; the release of a report in parliament; a debate in a public committee and a debate in the House of Lords. 2015 may be looked back on as the year when things finally started to turn around. 2016 should be the year that all these words turn into actions and we start to really value our grassroots music circuit once again.

All of that, of course, will come too late to save The Square. It's too late for the Cockpit Leeds, Manchester Roadhouse, The Point Cardiff and so many others. Too many. Even while writing this article I've had to edit it to include the announcement that Power Lunches, Dalston, needs to be added to the list.

At the recent Venues Day event in London, BBC Radio 6 DJ Steve Lamacq read out the gig list of the venues on the 1994 Oasis tour, the one that turned them from indie hopefuls into the world's biggest live music act. Of the 25 venues on that list, only 12 remain. TJs Newport, gone. Wherehouse Derby, gone. Princess Charlotte Leicester, gone. Old Trout Windsor, gone. If such a disastrous decline had impacted upon our theatres, arts centre, galleries or libraries, people would be outraged.

Well I am outraged. And if you love live music, you should be outraged too.

I'm astonished that government wants to have another think to consider their options whilst places like the Square close. If it was the Playhouse Theatre in Harlow, we'd act now.

I'm appalled that places like the Dublin Castle have to go and plead that actually the needs of building HS2 shouldn't effectively shut down their operation while it gets built because nobody seems able to understand that the place where Madness formed is pretty culturally and financially important. If it was the Royal Opera House we'd move HS2 to protect it.

I'm incensed that we are celebrating the global dominance of Adele as a British success story but haven't collectively acted in the most basic common sense manner possible to ensure that the places that create our future Adeles aren't closed down.

I find it unbelievable nobody seems able to act to protect, secure and improve the grassroots music venues that nurture and develop that talent considering the incredible economic value of the artists it creates and the culturally and social value to all of us of those places existing.

So, I'm thinking of chaining myself to the doors of the Square in Harlow.