BIG ISSUE NATIONAL VENDOR WEEK
LEARN MORE
Music

Big Issue's Venue Watch helps save Woking's only grassroots music venue: 'It's a big win'

Phoenix Cultural Centre’s £420,000 rates bill was overturned after Big Issue's Venue Watch campaign got behind the grassroots music venue. But they’re 'not out of the woods yet'

Live band on stage at the rescued grassroots music venue Phoenix Cultural Centre

Woking band Nefarious Picaroons play at Fiery Bird's local band showcase Lovely Music Night. Photo: courtesy Phoenix Cultural Centre

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.

A group of young people jamming original work at Fiery Bird's open mic. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Cultural Centre
A group of young people jamming original work at Fiery Bird’s open mic. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Cultural Centre

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.

Woking Borough Council told The Big Issue they were also happy about the resolution. Barker said: “We’re pleased to learn that the Phoenix Cultural Centre has come to an agreement with the Valuation Office which will help them continue their tremendous work in Woking.”

McGinty hopes their victory can inspire and equip other community groups and grassroots music venues to fight back against closure. Phoenix Cultural Centre faced particular pressure as their local authority had been forced to declare effective bankruptcy. Woking is one of seven councils to issue a Section 114 notice since 2018; 40 more have said they are at risk of following.

Last week the government agreed to provide an extra £500 million to help struggling councils balance their books, but it may not be enough. Desperate town hall chiefs are worried about the future of the services they provide. As well as cultural projects, care homes, buses, libraries, bin collections, and streetlights face cuts. This week, Suffolk residents staged a protest outside the council offices, after the local authority decided to axe 100% of core funding for the arts sector.

“This is a big win for us, and for community groups who utilise spaces to make social impact,” McGinty explained. “It removes the need for us to defend ourselves in court against the bill which will now be adjusted and backdated correctly. Also, it is precedent that can be used to show that by repurposing these ‘meanwhile spaces’, social impact can be made that is effective and fosters working relationships between sectors that are traditionally at odds with each other.”

While everyone at Phoenix Cultural Centre is relieved the threat of legal action has been lifted and the “impossible” bill rescinded, they are now in the process of rebuilding. They’ve “lost funding and time” as their focus was drawn to the immediate threat of closure. They also missed out on some funding bids, during the time their future was so uncertain.  

“The situation has made us vulnerable,” said McGinty. “We should never have been put in this position. We need to start again to build up essential funding, so we’re not out of the woods yet, but it is nice to have some good news to share.”

Phoenix Cultural Centre’s triumph against the odds comes as new figures from Music Venue Trust revealed a worsening crisis for grassroots music venues. Last week their annual report showed that at least two venues are closing every week. More than a third of venues operated at a loss in the last year.

With this climate in mind, McGinty appealed for grassroots music and culture fans to continue showing their support – “buying gig tickets, donating via our website or helping spread the word is fantastic help”. That backing will allow Phoenix Cultural Centre to return to their core mission of improving their town using the power of music, culture and community. “We can focus on our work for the next three years,” she said, “and do what we set out to do as community members making an accessible community live music and wellbeing space for everyone to enjoy, that benefits our community and our local economy.”

Buy tickets for gigs at Fiery Bird, Woking here. Remember, this is the best way you can show your support for any grassroots music venue!

You can donate to the Fiery Bird crowdfunder, to help them get back on their feet, here.

Gary Lightbody os Snow Patrol presents The Court House with teh trophy for National Lottery Project of the Year
Gary Lightbody presents the National Lottery Project of the Year trophy to The Court House’s Alison Gordon and Kieran Gilmore. Photo: courtesy of The Court House

More Venue Watch updates from the grassroots

In our first few months of the Venue Watch campaign, we have sadly lost two of the fantastic places featured in our weekly spotlight. Moles in Bath and London’s Matchstick Piehouse are both no more. But Phoenix Cultural Centre’s last-minute reprieve is far from the only evidence for the power of community action.

With the support of Venue Watch readers, the Court House in Bangor, Northern Ireland, won the public vote to be named National Lottery Project of the Year. After we profiled East London’s eclectic Luna – possibly the UK’s busiest music venue, but currently crowdfunding to secure their future – they saw a flurry of donations come in. “I cannot thank you enough,” said venue director Declan Walsh.

And last week we had good news from rural Scottish grassroots music venue MacArts, which had told us they feared they’d run out of money in early 2024. Venue manager Chris Wemyss emphasised the ongoing importance of music fans getting out and enjoying their local venues. “We had a decent spell in the lead up to Christmas and managed to put some cash in the bank,” he said. “We were also successful with some project funding so we are keeping our heads above water just now.”

Sign up to be part of The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign and get regular updates here.

National Vendor Week 2024

A celebration of people who are working their way out of poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'This is not the end': Experimental arts venue Iklectik fights to survive after shock eviction
Female experimental musician plays at Iklectik
Venue Watch

'This is not the end': Experimental arts venue Iklectik fights to survive after shock eviction

Here's one they played earlier: Pre-recorded orchestras spell trouble for live performance
Music

Here's one they played earlier: Pre-recorded orchestras spell trouble for live performance

This grassroots venue brings 'astonishing' music and mental wellbeing to rural Wales
Tivoli grassroots venue north Wales - Martin Kemp onstage pointing at the crowd
Venue Watch

This grassroots venue brings 'astonishing' music and mental wellbeing to rural Wales

Paloma Faith: 'How many left-wing people like me get to be a national treasure? None'
Paloma Faith
Music

Paloma Faith: 'How many left-wing people like me get to be a national treasure? None'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know