Southwark Council recently granted a 3am premises licence for a new live music venue as an exception to its cumulative impact policy. Gary Grant examines the reasons why.
The Peckham Cultural Quarter in South London is emerging as an important hub for music, media, cinema, restaurants and small arts-based businesses. But what South London has lacked, until now, was a significant new small to mid-size live music venue focused on emerging grassroots Indie talent.
Recent years have seen a decimation in the number of live music venues in a nation that gave the world The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, Adele and Stormzy. None of these artists learnt their craft playing Wembley Stadium or the O2 Arena. They honed their performance skills in the type of small to mid-size live music venues that are now a diminishing breed. A recent Report on Live Music from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons (March 2019) observed:
“In the past decade the UK has seen nationwide closures of music venues, and the sites that remain face a struggle to stay open given the rising costs and declining revenues. That poses an immediate threat to the development of the next generation of talent and fans.”
Between 2007-2016 London lost 35% of its grassroots music venues. There are a variety of reasons for this decline but one of them is the often insurmountable obstacle of obtaining a new premises licence in the most popular night-time economy destinations. These areas are frequently subject to tough “cumulative impact policies” that create a default position that applications for new licences will generally be refused by the local authority unless the applicant can demonstrate they are an exception that will not add to the existing negative impact caused by the number and type of licensed premises already operating in the area.
Even if a new licence can be obtained, the permitted operating hours are frequently so curtailed that operating a commercially viable live music venue is impossible. Given the change in the economics of the music industry in the digital age, increases in business rates, and customer preferences, live music venues can generally only survive today if they can also offer ancillary entertainment, including nightclub events after the live music ends at weekends. The income from these extra few hours can subsidise the live music throughout the rest of the week.
Unlike many artistic areas live music venues receive little or no government subsidies and many operate at a loss. The Arts Council gives just 0.06% of its budget to grassroots live music venues whilst opera receives 62%.
The experienced operators of two existing Southwark based venues, Four Quarters and Bermondsey Social Club, joined forces with an ambitious project to create a new 220 capacity live music venue in the Bussey Building within Peckham’s Cultural Quarter. Their licence application was submitted and progressed by Steve Burnett and Helen Ward of Poppleston Allen Solicitors. It attracted objections from all the responsible authorities, including the police, licensing, environmental health and public health. However some 26 local residents and musicians offered their support.
At a contested hearing before Southwark’s Licensing Sub-Committee on 8 July 2019 the applicants submitted that the significant cultural and economic benefits to the area that would flow from the grant of this licence justified the undoubted impact such a venue would have on the local area. Measures, including the employment of street marshals and robust licence conditions and operating policies, would help to mitigate that impact but ultimately this was a judgement call: The cultural and regeneration benefits outweighed the potential harm. The applicant’s barrister pointed to the support for the venue from those locals who had expressed a view. The responsible authorities’ objections were understandable but were based entirely on Policy grounds and, citing an earlier judicial observation: “Policy should be made for the man, not man for the Policy”. Further welcome support for the application was offered from Amy Lame, the Mayor of London’s Night Czar who stated
“...the Mayor of London has pledged to make safeguarding London’s night-time economy and culture a core priority. It attracts domestic and international visitors and is a key driver of the economic and cultural regeneration of town centres, worth more than £26 billion to our economy and employing a third of London’s workforce. Protecting and growing the capital’s live music scene is a key part of this work. Venues play a vital role in nurturing musical and creative talent and fostering community cohesion, keeping London’s talent pipeline flowing.”
The applicant also pointed to Southwark’s own Cultural Strategy 2013-2018 which actively encourages and promotes the performing arts including live music. The applicant submitted that licensing decisions - even one subject to a cumulative impact policy- can properly take into account such Cultural Strategies, particularly where these are referenced in the Council’s own Statement of Licensing Policy.
The Council determined to grant the new premises licence to 3am at weekends as an exception to their cumulative impact policy with “stringent conditions”. The cultural benefits of a new grassroots live music venue in South London, and the professionalism of the operators, justified the exception in this particular case.
Southwark Council’s supportive decision will be welcomed by live music venue operators, grassroots musicians and fans alike.