“Every city has a Womanby Street and those communities save lives”

By Meg Sharma

Ewan Moor is the manager and co-founder of Save Womanby Street (SWS), a campaign which began last year to protect the live music venues in Cardiff after planning applications threatened their status. One year on from the march, we discussed with Ewan what the campaign has achieved thus far, and what their plans are for the future.

For many, the SWS campaign started this time last year, after seeing social media posts regarding a petition, and the march that would take place on 29th of April, 2017. It was one that took Cardiff by storm, and I was in awe of how the community came together to tackle the cause.

For Ewan the campaign came from more personal ground. He told me ‘We launched the campaign March last year and it came about as I was working on Womanby Street – I still work there – at the City Arms Pub, and we saw the application that The Gatekeeper [Wetherspoons] put up to build some hotel rooms above the pub. We knew that could be a potential threat due to noise complaints that could threaten the livelihood of all the venues and the cities music, but we also saw the petition that was flying around and hitting around five thousand signatures. It was aiming at Welsh Assembly who don’t have any control over local applications so we knew it was something people were angry about but it wasn’t being directed, there didn’t seem to be any structural focus.’

Noticing these problems, himself and Alex Owens formed three goals, ‘which were to designate Womanby Street an area of cultural significance (which is something [they] made up), and secondly to change the local planning of Cardiff to protect not just the venues on the street but all the venues across Cardiff, and finally to bring in something called ‘The Agent of Change’ across Wales’.

They decided these after talking to the venues’ owners. Ewan commented ‘So many people, and random groups were popping up but no one was talking to the actual venue owners, and surely they’re the place to start? So that’s what we did. We walked up to random guys who had no idea who we were, sat down and made it very clear of our experience; I was previously a community organiser, Alex was a local councillor for our town so he knew the workings of local government and how to get things done in terms of campaigns.’ Ewan took a pause. ‘We had no idea what was going to happen after that.’

At the time, the planning application for the hotel was only the tip of the iceberg. Suddenly, a noise abatement order was given to Fuel Rock Club, and the proposal for the derelict building next to Clwb Ifor Bach to be turned into flats came in. Everything came to its peak when The Full Moon Club was forced to close.

‘From there it snowballed and did feel as if we were being attacked on all sides,’ Ewan explained ‘It was like everything that could have gone wrong on the street happened at the same time, especially with the closure of The Moon, it did drive that home to people. We could lose this; you can’t design something like Womanby Street, the communities that are all together, the incredible musical pedigree and once that’s gone, its gone. So that’s where it started, from anger and defiance – where all good campaigns should.’

The day of march was a significant moment for Moor. ‘The night before I had a stress nightmare where I was standing alone in the rain, in the street, with a limp SWS sign.’ The weeks before had been spent lobbying local councillors and candidates for the election at the time, with over 300 candidates contacted by the end of it.

Ewan highlighted the importance of creating something real people could be apart of. ‘I support ‘Save the Rainforest’ but I don’t do anything, it’s very easy to support with words, but action is far more important. We realised there had to be something more, a firmer idea where people could be part of something much bigger and that’s what the march was.’

The march was a moment in local history, with over 800 people attending, and over 1500 people showing interest online. They marched from Womanby Street to City Hall, in an attempt to save the street from the threats around it. Ewan recalled ‘It was an endless sea of people, we couldn’t grasp how many people were there. During the march we were lead by an incredible Samba band. It really hit home when we reached City Hall, turned around and saw a sea of people. It showed how important it was for people, how much they cared about it and how much they were willing to do something. That day things really changed.’

Anyone who lives in Cardiff, will know Womanby Street and its value as a culture. Those who love music, live gigs and nightlife will understand the community created on the street. Ewan described it as ‘like an almost cauldron of different identities, different music, different people, and you start seeing past stereotypes and particular music taste or anything life that’

For many people, it isn’t just a street. ‘Every city has a Womanby Street and those communities which save lives, they support people and you have to fight for it, because once its gone, its gone’ Ewan explained. A physical manifestation of this is the Head Above the Waves boutique in Castle Emporium, at the front of Womanby Street. They are an not-for-profit organisation which raises awareness of depression and suicide by ‘promoting positive and creative ways to deal with bad days’. In his own experience, Ewan described how the Womanby Street community had ‘saved [his] life and supported [him] through very difficult times’.

‘I was working in a retail shop about six years ago. I had taken off two weeks due to depression. When I came back my manager Katie, who had trained me up from a sales assistant to an assistant manager and was someone I greatly respected, took me upstairs into the stockroom and said ‘Ewan it’s fantastic to have you back we’re so pleased. However I think you should hand your notice in, I think you should leave Cardiff, and you should also leave your partner of eight years.’

I would love to be able to say I stood up and was defiant and told her to sod off, but I didn’t. I nodded and thanked her for looking out for me. I wandered off home and was about to write my resignation and that’s when I realised what she had said. She’d told me to give up and run away and that was the very first time that I got angry and wanted to do something and change something.’

Ewan Moor described that as the moment that still encourages him in campaigning today. ‘When I saw the developers trying to attack a community that saved my life and supported me through very difficult times, I saw another Katie, another bully who felt they were unaccountable and could do whatever they liked.’ In campaigning he explained that you need something that makes you angry in order to push you through moments of doubt and to motivate you further, or the worry can ‘paralyse and cripple an individual and entire campaign’.

For him, it is his hatred of bullies, and those who feel like they can do anything and not be held responsible. He said ‘you need to remind yourself what makes you angry, it’s not always enough to do it just because it’s the right thing to do’ he explained ‘there’s lots of right things to do so thats not going to be enough to push you through.’ ‘The main moments I had doubts? Everyday. But you have to be angry and push through it.’

The campaign didn’t just come with hardships and anger. Over the summer, a SWS cherry pale ale was released to celebrate the campaign. This was done in collaboration with Rhys Watkins and Adam Edinborough, the owners of local brewery Crafty Devils. I asked if it was the taste of Womanby Street, to which he replied with a laugh ‘We described it as ‘the bitterness of the tears of failed developers’.

Ewan told me ‘We designed it with them. Adam, the head brewer is astonishing at what he does; he loves throwing all the hops imaginable into the beers. We tried a few beers with them and it was a really special day, especially getting the activists down to try it and endlessly asking questions about beer. It was wonderful to see it in all the venues as well, particularly at Hub Fest.’ Ewan also explained that in any area, it’s not just the music that makes the music scene, but ‘a madrid of other things that support and enable a wonderful thriving community and its important to recognise and support that.’

While one might assume that Ewan and Alex were experts when they launched the campaign, he told me ‘We are slowly learning about the scene because we didn’t know anything when we started, which was actually advantageous as we could look at the bigger picture rather than focusing on one thing. It’s absolutely astonishing the amount of work that goes into putting on live shows. A lot of the heroes of the music scene go completely unsung. Anyone who has worked in a venue or put on anything will be able to tell you the hundreds of people that make it happen.’

Thankfully the campaign was a success, with the street being protected regarding planning application, but Ewan clarified that there are always vulnerabilities. The Agent of Change policy is being worked on and will be finalised on the 18th of May, and is also being looked at for the entire UK.

‘It was very odd to see us being referred to in the House of Commons, slightly unreal’ Moor reflects, ‘We’re working with Welsh Government and Music Venues Trust, and Musicians Union to make sure that it is fit for purpose. That will affect not just Womanby Street not just Cardiff but the whole of Wales and we’ll be the first country in the UK to do it. So yeah! Suck on that England.’ he says with a laugh.

The Agent of Change principle is a ‘common sense law’ stating that those looking into building or developing next to a music venue or nightclub need to put measures in place such as soundproofing, and works both ways, with those who want to build a new venue or nightclub being responsible for making sure they do not negatively affect the community. Ewan expressed ‘All of us could name at least five venues of the top of your head that have been closed because of unsuitable residential developments. We’re not against development, we’re not against progress it just cannot be at the price of our soul and our culture.’

The campaign is a huge contribution to Cardiff becoming the UK’s first Music City. When Ewan explained they expected to be campaigning for two to three years I was shocked. Within a year they had achieved an incredible amount and received such a prestigious title along the way. For the campaigners, it was another opportunity they had to take, explaining that ‘we could ask for the council leader to write a music strategy and get it, so we’re going to ask for more. We asked for Sound Diplomacy, who are one of the world’s leading consultancies on developing music strategies in music cities. They work all over the world, currently doing some work in Berlin, San Francisco and Vancouver, and we saw a real opportunity as Cardiff is a small city, and it would be easier to make Cardiff a precedent not just for the UK but for Europe. I take my hat to them, they were really receptive and they’ve completely gone for it whole hog.’

However, there is no time for rest, ‘Its fantastic and it’s wonderful but that cannot call for complacency, because administration changes, leadership changes. In a couple of years we mayend up with a council who do not view music as a vital aspect of our city, so we can’t stop and say everything’s done, hands dusted.’ On a more personal level, Ewan told me how he struggles to pause and recognise what he has achieved, saying ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit relentless when it comes to this sort of thing. I find it really difficult to stop and celebrate. Our activists do. We did have a party on the street with the SWS reprobates as they call themselves.’

The next stage of the campaign is to look past one street and focus on the entire city. The campaign started with talking to the venue owners and seeing what they wanted, so Ewan and Adam only saw it fit to talk to everyone within the community to see what they want from the campaign. A problem that often arises in campaigning is that ‘few people decide what that community wants and that is what they’ll fight for, and they end up surprised when it fails.’ In the past two months they have released a survey in collaboration with Sound Diplomacy to make sure their next steps serve and help as many community members as possible.

In reflection, Ewan said ‘we were and still are the underdogs. It terms of how we timed it and the opportunities we just grasped everything we could, because loads popped out of nowhere. There are things we would do differently, such as recruiting more activists on a day to day level and I might have less grey hair if I did that. We hada very good strategy, we were flexible, and we were determined as well, which was key to our success.’ The campaign was awarded outstanding contribution at the Cardiff Music Awards which Ewan attributes to ‘the activists as there is so many people involved, not just one or two people, it’s down to the efforts of literally hundreds, if not thousands.’