After the #SaveThekla campaign breathed new life into the conversation around protecting Bristol’s nightlife, the Cable spoke to The Fleece’s Chris Sharp, who’s seen it all.
“If we get a curfew for our club nights at the weekend, then it’s curtains.” Chris Sharp is the owner of beloved music venue The Fleece, whose recent history encapsulates the threats faced by UK nightlife.
After years of fighting to protect his venue from new flats being built across the road – and the threat that new residents might complain of noise – Sharp has now been hit by a sharp increase in business rates.
“We’re locked into a ridiculous increase,” he says, exasperated. “How can you possibly have a fourfold increase over five years, when other music venues are paying the same or an extra 10-15%?
“People have just started moving into the new flats opposite three weeks ago so we are already worried about our long-term security, because we don’t know if we’ll get complaints. Put business rates on top of that and suddenly you think, ‘Is this venue viable?’”
A musician most of his life, Sharp bought The Fleece in 2010, but since 2014, the venue has had to contend with the conversion of office spaces into new flats just across the road.
He is now trying to buy the road that runs down the side of the venue, so he can build a contained smoking area in order to limit the street noise, which is the main cause of noise complaints.
Sharp successfully campaigned to get planning laws changed so that when a building is converted into flats it must go through the same planning scrutiny as full-scale developments, which he was “really proud” of.
Bristol City Council tried to enforce soundproofing and fixed-shut windows in the flats. “We thought it was great because the council was fighting on our behalf, but the greedy developer said it was going to cost too much money,” Sharp says.
The developer successfully appealed to the national Planning Inspectorate.“The council ended up with a £20k bill for trying to defend us. It’s not the local that’s the problem, but the national planning guidelines.
“This is why we’re campaigning for ‘agent of change’, because it gives venues added protection and allows the council to enforce things on developers without fear of being sued.”
of this country.”
The ‘agent of change’ principle would force developers to soundproof new flats if the new development is near a pre-existing business, such as a music venue. It has received support from local MPs Kerry McCarthy and Thangam Debbonaire, for whom Sharp has the highest praise, and mayor Marvin Rees.
A bill to enshrine it in law has just received backing from the government. “We’re praying it gets through. It’s so vital because it’s not just about The Fleece and Thekla, it’s about the culture
of this country.”
‘A shared voice’
Sharp feels some optimism about the current conversation around Bristol nightlife which was reignited by the recent #SaveThekla campaign.
As the owner of such a well-known venue, he feels responsibility: “Our Facebook post about business rates got 600,000 views within 48 hours. We have the power to get lots of attention so, if that can benefit other venues in Bristol, that’s amazing.
“There’s a lot that’s going to happen next year. There’s a movement to get everyone together and form some sort of local group,” he says.
“This would include a Night Czar and venues coming together to have a shared voice, which will be more effective, because at the moment we’re all shouting the same thing but at different times.”
Even through the tough times, Sharp has maintained his commitment to providing a breeding ground for local artists.
“I love the fact that this venue is still fiercely independent. We’re not corporately owned, or part of some chain – The Fleece is what it is.”
His advice for people? “Take a punt and go see a local band you’ve never heard of.”