Save Womanby Street – A Year On
Mon 19 Mar marks one year since the campaign to Save Womanby Street started. Fedor Tot looks back on a tumultuous year for the Cardiff music scene.
Fury sparked almost immediately amongst the denizens of Womanby Street when it was announced last year that The Gatekeeper, the Wetherspoons pub on the street, had announced plans to build a hotel in the empty space above the pub. The clutch of venues and bars around that street had fermented a fertile cross-section of creative energy, coalescing in one street barely 100 metres long. With the further announcement of a planning application to buy up land next to Clwb Ifor Bach occupied by a derelict building, and turn it into flats, the future of Cardiff’s music scene was under very real threat, and the campaign kicked into high gear.
A year on from that, a lot has changed, much for the better. The planning application for the block of flats was eventually rejected by Cardiff City Council, thanks in part to a charge led by Clwb Ifor to levy 500 complaints against it. They have now also brought in Sound Diplomacy, a consultancy firm that specialises in how wider musical ecosystems function, with the aim of producing a unified music policy for Cardiff.
The Welsh Government have also since passed the ‘Agent Of Change’ principle into law, which means that any developments must adapt to the environment around them, rather than existing environments adapting to new developments. In other words, if people move into a newly-built block of flats next to a music venue and complain about the noise, it is the responsibility of the property developer to soundproof the flats, rather than the venue paying the cost. It’s testament to the campaign’s success that even the Scottish and English parliaments are now considering applying the same principles.
This success is down to the energy of the people who make Womanby Street: the venue owners, the staff, the promoters, the musicians, and the punters, as well as their capacity to organise. “You can’t design something like Womanby Street,” says Ewan Moor, one of the central organisational figures behind the campaign. Steve Bines, who formerly ran the Full Moon and Moon Club venues and helped set up Hub Festival, adds, “Music changed my life and that’s probably the same for 50% of people. When that’s threatened, you’re going to be prepared to pull together and stop it.”
The momentum gained from this community energy has enacted real concrete change and cannot be allowed to disappear. But has that battle been entirely won? The answer is not so definite. Yes, the Agent Of Change principle has been passed. Yes, the block of flats next to Clwb Ifor will not happen. But the planning permission for the hotel above the Gatekeeper was accepted and is still valid, as Agent Of Change does not apply retrospectively.
If Wetherspoons decide to build that hotel, they could still endanger the street’s nightlife, although hotel residents do not have the same rights to complain as permanent tenants. That said, the sense is that Wetherspoons has been rather well behaved. Grant Jones, a director of Creative Republic Of Cardiff (who took on the running of the Moon after it closed in April 2017 due to mounting debts), suggests, “With the campaign, plus the public feeling and general climate, Wetherspoons do not want to be seen as the bad guys.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that this particular ‘Spoons would benefit from disrupting the area around it, which provides it with much passing traffic. It surely proves the point that, even though the Wetherspoons is, in a way, a conglomerate outlier amongst the businesses here, it still forms part of a wider community.
Womanby Street is part of a larger ecosystem of South Wales creative spaces. Further out from Cardiff, we have places like Pontardawe Arts Centre, often state-funded, struggling to make ends meet in the age of austerity (see p.TBC). Outside of cities, these venues are sometimes the only creative spaces available. Lack of creative nourishment here will negatively affect Cardiff five or 10 years down the line. Whilst he may not have any jurisdiction over their success, Cardiff City Council Leader Huw Thomas is right in saying, “When Cardiff succeeds the region succeeds, and when the region succeeds Cardiff succeeds.”
The future of Womanby Street is a lot more secure than a year ago, something which we should celebrate – but we should not, as Ewan Moor states, allow the “energy, the community power, the enthusiasm to dissipate”. To let apathy sink in would be a greater danger than any real estate developer.
photo JOSEPH SINGH