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Famous Camden Town music venues appeal for help to survive virus crisis

Dublin Castle landlord leads calls for rescue package

28 May, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Amy Winehouse playing a secret gig in the back room of the Dublin Castle

CAMDEN Town’s historic reputation for live music is hanging by a thread, venue owners have warned, amid new appeals for help to survive the coronavirus crisis.

After missing out on other business rescue packages, licensees want discretionary grants to help keep them afloat and a suspension of a late-night levy. Venues are still being asked to pay the charge even though they have been closed since the end of March.

While other businesses, such as shops and car showrooms, are slowly getting the green light to reopen under the government’s easing of lockdown measures, gig venues face one of the longest waits to get people through the door.

Henry Conlon, who runs the Dublin Castle in Parkway, one of London’s most famous pubs, said: “Not only is Camden’s live music culture famed the world over, it’s the key to Camden’s economic recovery following this pandemic. “Tourism shall eventually return but only if there is something to return to.”

The pub’s legendary music room provides a platform for up and ­coming bands, and has perhaps most famously been a launchpad for House of Fun and One Step Beyond hitmakers Madness. The band often namechecks the venue as being pivotal to its big break.  Blur, The Arctic ­Monkeys and Amy Winehouse all gigged there, and industry spotters join the crowd looking for the next big thing.

Mr Conlon is at the forefront of the appeal due to his position as chairman of the Camden Inner London Licensees Association (CILLA). He has written to Sir Keir Starmer, the Holborn and St Pancras MP who is now leader of the Labour Party, urging him to intervene and tomorrow (Friday) he will make his views known again on a “Zoom call” with council chiefs.

Suggs behind the bar at the Dublin Castle

“Camden Town may be world famous but a lot of its celebrity was created by small music venues and the opportunity they presented,” said Mr Conlon.

“Our operational costs are tremendously high just to keep these doors open for business. The rules and regulations of the licensing policy mean that the chances of being a profit-making business are very low. Closure will be a loss to Camden’s recovery and its attraction to tourism.”

He said that CILLA members were now ­“desperate to keep their businesses” afloat but had not been eligible for a small business grant scheme, only open to those with a rateable ­value below £51,000. Mr Conlon said pub and music venue owners were facing some of the highest bills among businesses in the area. The night-time levy, a charge to pay for policing and the clear up after the weekend rush of revellers, was introduced four years ago as a bill for anybody serving drinks beyond midnight.

A point of controversy, some venue owners believe off-licences should also be forced to pay, or the levy should be suspended during a time when there is no income for bars. Camden Council is currently offering business rates holidays, but is being urged to do more.

The crisis hit just as the Music Walk of Fame, a celebration of Camden’s contribution to music, was getting started. Paving slabs paying tribute to Ms Winehouse, Madness and Soul II Soul had been laid in the High Street amid party scenes. Other noted venues in the area include the Jazz Cafe, also in Parkway, the Electric Ballroom in Camden High Street and Koko, the former ­Camden Palace, near Mornington Crescent.

Mr Conlon said: “Often you could be sitting in a coffee shop in another country and they’d be playing a song from a musician or band that performed in one of our venues – especially our very own Amy ­Winehouse.”

“The last time we had jeopardy, she was collecting her fifth Grammy Award and she announced: ‘Camden Town ain’t burning down’. If only we had Amy to help us now. I’m sure she’d be doing all that she could to help us.”

The Dublin Castle is among scores of venues across the country raising money through crowdfunder appeals and is part of a campaign by the Music Venue Trust charity to raise awareness over what is at stake.

The New Journal reported earlier this month how the Fiddler’s Elbow in Prince of Wales Road was also asking for help amid concerns that even if pubs are allowed to reopen with social-distancing rules in place, it would still be a long time before live music gigs will be permitted.

Amy Lamé, the former Camden mayoress hired by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to be Night Time Czar, wrote to councils earlier in the outbreak asking for breaks. “

The Mayor and I are asking all London local authorities to consider providing their licensed premises with a licence fee holiday for 12 months,” she said. “This could include suspending collection of annual licence fees and late-night levy fees where applicable. It mirrors the business rates holiday for retail, leisure and hospitality businesses.”

Camden Council’s finance chief, Labour councillor Richard Olszewski, said: “As in the rest of the country, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted across all areas of daily life, including on Camden-based businesses. We are working hard to support them, both during this initial period and going forward towards an eventual recovery.

“Unfortunately, local authorities like Camden do not have the legal powers to suspend or vary fees such as the Late Night Levy. The requirement to pay an annual fee for a premises licence is set out in legislation and the government has so far not relaxed this requirement.”

He added: “The policing that the levy pays for is still deployed within the borough to deliver services to Camden’s business community as a whole. The council’s licensing team will work with businesses to ensure a smooth transition to normal operations as restrictions are eased.

“Our dedicated coronavirus web pages include all the latest information on the support available to businesses in Camden including grants, loans, wage support, rent support and other assistance. Businesses can also call us on 0207 974 5717 for further advice.”

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