It was supposed to be curtains for Phoenix Cultural Centre. In October 2023, the community space that houses Woking’s only grassroots music venue, Fiery Bird, received a shock business rates bill. It said their new annual charge was £420,000 – and that they already owed more than £300,000. The first repayment of £61,000 was due imminently.
It was “impossible, such a ridiculous amount of money”, CEO Elaine McGinty told us at the time. It was also contrary to the understanding she thought they had with Woking Borough Council, which had always previously waived their business rates. The initial instalment alone was more than the social enterprise’s entire turnover for the previous year. There was no way they could pay. Not only did they face closure, but also legal action over the debts they’d unknowingly racked up.
Still, McGinty and her team refused to give up. And last week – with the support of The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign, which champions grassroots music venues across the UK – that bill for hundreds of thousands was overturned. “Everyone said to me that this time I wouldn’t win it but with your help, we did,” McGinty said. “I wanted to thank you so much for your support, it has been deeply appreciated by the whole team and me personally. I remember you acknowledged how difficult it is to tell the story over and over. That was the first time anyone had ever done that, and it meant a lot.”
Phoenix Cultural Centre’s mammoth bill was based on new premises they’d been offered free of charge by a property developer. They’d turned the empty office space – the disused former KFC UK headquarters – into a resource that brings the diverse local community together by creating a shared cultural space that offers opportunities for wellbeing, employment and training to those who are marginalised or underrepresented.
The council argued that they must pay the rates bill for the entire building, even though they were only inhabiting a small portion. Venue Watch challenged the council on this decision back in November. While their leader Cllr Ann-Marie Barker said she “supported the ambitions” of Phoenix Cultural Centre she insisted it was “unaffordable” to offer them rates relief on their new building. Following our profile of the venue, Phoenix Cultural Centre presented their case to the Valuation Office Agency – the body that gives government the valuations and property advice needed to support taxation and benefits across England and Wales – and their bill was overruled.
The Valuation Office Agency agreed to remove the unused floors of the building from Phoenix Cultural Centre’s business rates and reclassify their area as a community centre, backdated to July 2023. This reduced their bill from £432,000 pa to £28,000 pa. With the 75% relief that all retail, leisure and hospitality businesses are entitled to, the new annual charge comes to £7,000. They are no longer in insurmountable debt, and can start to look to the future.