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Shock £300k bill from bankrupt council threatens Woking's only grassroots music venue

Phoenix Cultural Centre – home to Woking's only grassroots music venue – faces an uncertain future after a huge rates bill from the council

Live band on stage at Fiery Bird grassroots music venue, part of the Phoenix Cultural Centre in Woking - Big Issue Venue Watch

Live music on the stage at Fiery Bird, as part of Phoenix Cultural Centre's opening weekend. Photo: Phoenix Cultural Centre

It should have been a moment for celebration. After years searching for a stable home, Phoenix Cultural Centre was just weeks away from opening their vibrant and inclusive cultural hub in a brand-new building. They’d turned an empty office space – the disused former KFC UK headquarters – into a community space housing Woking’s only grassroots music venue, Fiery Bird. A celebratory opening weekend was planned with live bands, spoken word performances, street food, stalls from local charities and even face-painting. Then – out of the blue – a business rates charge of more than £300k arrived.

“It should have been an amazingly positive time,” says Phoenix Cultural Centre CEO Elaine McGinty, “and then we got this ridiculous bill. Members of our board have resigned as they cannot take the stress or the risk. They are all volunteers, working in schools, charities or at university with their lives ahead of them, who don’t deserve to be treated this way for just trying to do something good for their community.”

With the demand standing in the hundreds of thousands for the rest of this year, the council wanted the first £61,000 monthly payment by 1 October. That instalment alone was more than the social enterprise’s entire turnover for the previous year. It was “impossible, such a ridiculous amount of money”, way more than it would take to destroy the Community Interest Company (CIC).

A musician with a background in community work, McGinty started the Phoenix Cultural Centre 12 years ago with her partner Joe Buckley. Woking was going through a “massive regeneration” but McGinty saw so many people being excluded.

“All the people I was meeting in the job clubs and classes I was doing felt left out of it. They couldn’t afford to go out, they felt isolated. It creates a schism in the community,” she explains. “Access to music was also really difficult. Woking’s got a rich music and arts heritage, but in a town of 100,000 people we didn’t have a single live music venue.”

The Phoenix Cultural Centre was set up to address both issues – bringing 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. Woking Borough Council recognised their efforts by waiving business rates on a series of temporary locations. Back in 2014, the council even passed a resolution promising to find a permanent venue for the centre. Despite years negotiating, “nothing happened”, says McGinty. The council acknowledges they didn’t manage to find the promised venue.

Things were looking up when property developers EcoWorld London offered use of the lower floors of their building in the town centre. EcoWorld spent £100k making the space suitable for Phoenix Cultural Centre’s volunteers to get to work creating a professional grassroots music venue – Fiery Bird – and a community space.

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“It seemed perfect,” says McGinty. “We kept checking with the council all the way through. We went through planning with them, we went through licencing, and we checked before we signed the lease… and then this all happened.”

In July, McGinty signed a three-year lease with EcoWorld, with the option to extend if the partnership was a success. It wouldn’t be until September that she’d find out the council had started charging Phoenix Cultural Centre business rates at full whack from the moment they inked that contract. “You can’t make the application for the [rates] relief until after you’ve signed the lease. But that’s something we’ve always done, and they’ve always given it,” says McGinty. “Now they’re saying they won’t because we’re a CIC, not a charity. And we’re saying we’ve always been a CIC. And you’ve always issued zero rates.”

A group of women celebrating Diwali at Phoenix Cultural Centre
Diwali celebrations at Phoenix Cultural Centre. Photo: Phoenix Cultural Centre

This year has been rocky for Woking, to say the least. In June the council effectively declared itself bankrupt, revealing its former Conservative administration had racked up a £1.2bn deficit from risky investments. It’s one of six English councils forced to issue a section 114 notice after running out of cash in the last five years. Under a section 114 the council can’t authorise any new expenditure, aside from maintaining statutory services like schools and waste collection. Woking council, now led by the Liberal Democrats, are being forced to close local services, from the swimming pool to public toilets.

Cllr Ann-Marie Barker, leader of Woking Borough Council, said she “supported the ambitions” of Phoenix Cultural Centre and was “fully aware of the tremendous work that they do with communities across the borough”. She confirmed that the council has offered “substantial support” in the tens of thousands to the CIC by covering business rates on their previous premises.

But she said “even without the current financial situation” it would be “completely unaffordable” for the council to cover the charge on the new building. “It is unrealistic and wrong for an organisation in receipt of discretionary rates relief to move to a significantly larger premises and expect the council meet a substantial increase in rates relief,” she added.

Barker suggested Phoenix Cultural Centre should seek to become a charity, in order to access charitable rate relief, which gives up to 80% off the bill. This is funded from central government, and sometimes topped up by discretionary payments from local authorities. Setting up a charity is a complex process – and while McGinty says it’s their long-term plan, they have to wait for a period of stability.

As their fight for survival continues, Phoenix Cultural Centre is getting legal support from Power to Change, the independent trust that addresses social need by strengthening community businesses. They believe this is an important case, because McGinty and her team are far from the only ones under threat.

“Community businesses like the Phoenix Cultural Centre are the heart and soul of communities, but high business rates are threatening their survival and their ability to serve local needs,” says Ailbhe McNabola, deputy chief executive at Power to Change. “The current system ignores the crucial role they play in their communities and the valuable contributions they make to society and the local economy. This is despite them often plugging the gaps when local authorities are stretched thin.”

Power to Change is calling on the next UK government to introduce 75% business rates relief for CICs and Community Benefit Societies (CBSs). These businesses are regulated forms of social enterprise with profit and asset locks, which would ensure the money goes to do good in the community, Power to Change argues. They say the policy would help these groups reinvest an additional £169.5 million into their local communities each year.

Any change would be too late for Phoenix Cultural Centre and the Fiery Bird live music venue, but McGinty remains hopeful for their future. “We think we can negotiate the way forward because it’d be impossible to think of losing this when we’ve come so far. We’ve had so much struggle,” she says.

A statement of intent, the opening weekend went ahead despite their troubles. “There were all ages here,” smiles McGinty. “There were bands on the Saturday and Sunday, all different genres. The final act on the Sunday was a band called Sour Kix. They came to us 10 years ago, when the youngest was eight and the eldest was 13. They were tiny. Now they’re in their late teens and 20s and they’re touring and recording and all of that.”

Sour Kix’s place on the Fiery Bird stage, rounding out an energetic community celebration, was a welcome reminder why what they’re doing matters. “Phoenix Cultural Centre is needed is because people get left behind in regeneration. People have the right to have access to the health and wellbeing that you can get through music and the arts. Everyone sees the immediacy of issues like mental health. Putting in place the solutions that would help stop these things happening in the first place seems like a no-brainer to me. We’re trying to stop people falling in the river not pulling them out.”

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!

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

Sour Kix on the Fiery Bird stage
Sour Kix on the Fiery Bird stage at the Phoenix Cultural Centre opening. Photo: Phoenix Cultural Centre

Venue Watch analysis: Phoenix Cultural Centre and Fiery Bird live venue, Woking

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

I have often said that two unwritten laws that seem prevalent in the closures of so many grassroots venues now are the Laws of Common Sense and the Laws of Unintended Consequence. And in this case it’s obvious to anyone that neither seem to have been applied by Woking Borough Council regarding their dealing with the amazing Fiery Bird live music venue and Phoenix Cultural Centre.

Firstly, regarding the Laws of Unintended Consequence, they could eradicate a massive contribution to the wellbeing and artistic fabric of the local community, including many from marginalised groups. As a consequence, they might smash to pieces a potentially huge draw for the area that, as I’ve previously explained, creates financial growth in other business and services in the locale. This could be the ‘unintended’ consequence of the council’s direct actions.

Piecing the Community Together display at Phoenix Cultural Centre
A display at Phoenix Cultural Centre

Regarding the Laws of Common Sense, they seem to have actually lost control of all their senses. Is it common sense to destroy a valuable and fully functioning and highly popular vital community centre just as it’s about to soar and replace it with nothing? Is it common sense to ask for money they know the centre doesn’t have, couldn’t generate in a month of Sundays and they knew all along was beyond their ability to pay?

My heart absolutely goes out to the amazing Elaine McGinty, the kind of person that should be feted not deflated! The business rates bill should be waived. And I think the Laws of Common Sense need to be applied here. Of course the government needs to offer genuine support for a place that has the power to enrich and change thousands of lives. Save the Phoenix Cultural Centre and present and future generations in Woking and beyond will all be the better off for it.

My final brief topic this week is one close to my heart: the plight of musicians in this incredibly toxic and harsh landscape. So just briefly, I’d like to point out that the pay offered to musicians in the UK today is actually lower than it was 25 years ago. Incredible but true.

From the disaster for touring musicians that was Brexit to the Covid years, we saw thousands of musicians leave the profession. I have direct experience of this, having been forced to leave the UK to ply my trade in the year 2000. Even back then, I could see the writing on the wall.

Having recently spoken to both UK promoters and musicians, I can tell you it’s very tough out there. And yes, I appreciate money is tight. But who is going to make us dance and sing and give us an amazing night out if they can’t afford to live? So, nip out and buy some tickets and albums and merchandise directly from musicians if you can, avoid the Spotify monster for a while (that pays no-one it seems) and directly support local players of all ages.

We have amazing grassroots music venues and they need musicians. Support both! Join the fightback.

Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club.

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