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You have picked the wrong villain

November 5, 2006 9 comments

The London Astoria is one of the capital’s best-known live music venues; hundreds of groups ranging from Nirvana to the Stones have played there over the last 15 years. It’s also reportedly “under threat” from property developers in sinister allegiance with the Olympics and most recently Transport for London’s evil machinations. Indeed, it is true that if the (absolutely essential for London) Crossrail scheme goes ahead, the long-overdue rebuild of Tottenham Court Road station will require the venue’s demolition.

Let’s get one thing straight – it would not be a bad thing at all if the Astoria were demolished and replaced with another comparably sized venue. On the current site, the acoustics are rubbish, you can’t see the stage from the bar, the bits of the venue away from the main floor are too small for its capacity (after each gig, there’s an enormous queue to escape, not helped by the fact that the exit passages are too small to maintain separate queues for the cloakroom and the door), and it rains sweat. The gig experience at the Astoria is far inferior to that of other similar-sized London venues like the Brixton Academy or the Shepherds Bush Empire.

The problem is that London has too few of these mid-sized gig venues for its population (even ignoring its uncontested status as the world’s most important city for music). The amount of venue space in central London, far more convenient for gig-goers than Hammersmith or Shepherds Bush or Brixton, is particularly limited. Bands play at the Astoria even though the facilities are poxy because they have little choice, and tearing it down without replacing it would be a disaster for the London music scene.

But surely, one of the core conditions of demolition consent for such an important public amenity would be to build a music venue as part of the development on the new site, right? Sadly not – and this is where we run into the very issues that’s responsible for the shortage of live music venues in central London in the first place. Although rents are high and property developers are keen to exploit the fact that rents are high, neither of these is the critical factor that will ensure the Astoria goes unreplaced.

No, the reason the Astoria will go unreplaced is the same reason that there are no decent nightclubs in central London, why nearly all pubs (except, for some reason, ghastly chain pub-bars like Tiger Tiger) in central London shut before midnight despite the new licensing rules, and why drinkers in one of London’s finest establishments face instant expulsion if caught attempting to dance: the decision is in the hands of miserable provincial killjoys.

Central London, in the “Underground Zone 1″ sense that visitors understand and that I’m using here, is made up almost entirely of the City of London and the City of Westminster. Aside from lunchtime-and-after-work venues, the former is irrelevant for going out; Westminster accounts for the rest, including Soho, the West End, Covent Garden. It is the local council for the Astoria area, and it has an active policy of discouraging people from having fun (unless it’s in a suitably ‘artistic’ format).

The West End should be run as an entertainment area for Londoners and visitors. That is its traditional function; that is what it does best; and that is what its geographical location demands. Unfortunately, Westminster City Council has other ideas: it classes the West End as a stress area, meaning that new pubs, bars, nightclubs, venues and restaurants will generally not be approved there. As part of the planning consent for demolition of the Astoria, Westminster has stipulated that instead of a new venue, the developers must build yet another theatre (because the Astoria was classed as a theatre before it was converted into a music venue 15 years ago).

Westminster City Council is clearly the villain of this piece: it is relishing the opportunity to convert a sweaty venue where uncouth types swill beer and mosh to rock-and-roll into yet another opportunity for tweedy elders to enjoy Mr Lloyd-Webber’s latest offering. In general, it relishes the opportunity to punish people and companies that steer clear of sanitized, corporate-friendly, safe, sober, high-spending entertainment.

I wonder if you can guess which political party carries an overwhelming majority on Westminster City Council? (clue: Dame Shirley Porter is a prominent and representative Westminster Council alumna).