Britain's planning rules are ruining its music industry. Here's how

The Troubador in 2009. Image: Daniel Latham/Wikimedia Commons.

In early July, The Troubadour, an independent pub in London's Earl’s Court district, was put up for sale. Its owners, Simon and Susie Thornhill, told the Evening Standard that the closure of their rear terrace, prompted by noise complaints and a subsequent enforcement action by Kensington & Chelsea council, had reduced their takings, making the business unviable.

The Troubadour is one of the more storied venues in London. It has hosted live music since 1954; as recently as 2011, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards played there. But with Earl’s Court now being redeveloped into housing and a new town centre, it was the last such venue in the area. Its current challenges are disappointing.

When discussing the problems faced by live music venues today, the debate tends to focus more on the micro side of things – individual cases, like that of the Troubadour – than the macro, in the form of a larger, more worrying problem threatening all our cultural spaces, including venues.  

This problem is the way our planning laws are often used to undermine and deprioritise the creative industries. The Troubadour’s fate notwithstanding, we need to understand how the national laws – and their local interpretations – that guide city planning impact our venues, pubs, theatres and community spaces.

Our planning system has become increasingly focused on private concerns, rather than on building and sustaining the places that makes our cities worth living in for all of us. This is not our planning sector’s fault; nor is it that of our developers. It’s the law. And it needs to change.

Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, our national planning policy framework (NPPF) has become skewed so that decision making focuses on how expensive a piece of land is, rather than the collective impact, inside and outside, that building on it will have. Proposals are judged on the concept of "sustainable development".

But sustainability, in this context, is not the same as liveability. It is a financial equation. And the biggest losers, it seems, are those in need of affordable housing, or places to create, whether that's a venue, a community centre or a rehearsal space; anywhere, in fact, that doesn't generate immediate profit for stakeholders.

Here are a few examples. Few of those in the creative industries understand the arcane ecosystem surrounding viability assessments. These are mathematical equations to determine how viable (or not) a development is: in planning vernacular, “viability” is defined as a development that brings profits of 20 per cent or more to the investor (in most cases, a private developer).

Viability assessments are done on a case-by-case basis. What they mean in aggregate, though, is that planning permission is most likely to be granted at the behest of private stakeholders, rather than because of housing or community demand.

This impacts how much affordable housing is built, as Oliver Wainwright cleverly explains in this article in the Guardian. It also makes it more difficult to justify retaining venues on valuable land that could be put to another use (flats, for example). If redevelopment does not bring at least 20 per cent profit to the developer, than the project is not deemed, in our policy framework, viable.  Here, it is not those building on the land that need to change; it's the laws they follow.

This problem is compounded by the deregulation of building use change rules, introduced by the previous government and expanded by the current one. These changes mean that a venue (or a pub, or an office) can now be turned into flats with minimal planning consent. If the venue is not deemed profitable, if flats would provide a greater return to the landowners, that venue isn't viable.

There's more. Where a change of use is denied by a planner, when it goes to appeal, the decision is often reversed: the viability assessment is everything.

As a result, planners are forced to be more creative in finding ways to challenge these changes: fighting appeals using arcane sewage treatment bylaws, say, or finding breaches in applications due to cycling provisions.

There's another issue our planning laws make worse: this one involves noise complaints, which are often blamed for the closure of venues and other creative spaces.

The Fleece is Bristol is another venue under threat right now, as is The Arches in Glasgow. Both examples are down to new housing developments nearby, and residents complaints about the noise from both the music itself and from patrons smoking outside. Where councils issue venues with compliance order, they lose out on revenues from, for example, the closure of a patio or back garden.

Here, the law favours the complainant, not the original use – even though the venue was there before they were. In law, noise is considered a “material consideration”: issues surrounding it are enforceable, regardless of who was there first.

The need to build more housing is creating more strained relationships between residents and those running our night-time economies. Such is the case on the London Borough of Hackney right now, where the council is threatening to restrict bars and clubs’ opening hours, a move that could decimate an economy that employs thousands of people. The term used in the draft policy document is that venues and clubs are “not considered appropriate".

The solution to this problem does not lie in addressing individual cases, but in changing our planning laws. When a new use is introduced into an area – such as a block of flats in a town centre – those introducing this new use should be required to respect the existing licensees provisions.

That would mean that, if a venue makes the same amount of noise before but there are now residents living closer to it, it is the developer’s responsibility to provide the necessary compliance (like soundproofing). As long as the venue doesn’t breach its existing license, they'd have to respect it.

These rules, called the Agent of Change principle, have been applied in the Australian city of Melbourne. In our national planning policy framework, these regulations exist in principle, but not in practice. This needs to change, nationwide.

Britain's music venues are part of our quality of life ecosystem, like our theatres, museums and restaurants. But they are closing at an alarming rate, and our planning laws are making this worse.

And it's not only harming our venues, but our developers, too. In Dalston, the advertising for a new Taylor Wimpey development called Dalston Square tells you that you can discover new music and culture by purchasing a £450k flat. The places where you can do so are under increasing threat.

Until we look at how our planning laws impact our venues, cultural spaces and quality of life, we will continue to see stories like that of The Troubadour. We need to understand and positively assess the economic value of our night-time economies, and the businesses that rely on these spaces to trade and develop. And this starts with how we plan.

Shain Shapiro is the managing director of Sound Diplomacy, the leading music market development agency, and the founder of the Music Cities Convention.


To transform Australia’s cities, it should scrap its car parks

A Sydney car park from above. Image: Getty.

Parking may seem like a “pedestrian” topic (pun intended). However, parking is of increasing importance in metropolitan areas worldwide. On average, motor vehicles are parked 95 per cent of the time. Yet most transport analysis focuses on vehicles when they are moving.

Substantial amounts of land and buildings are set aside to accommodate “immobile” vehicles. In Australia, Brisbane provides 25,633 parking spaces in the CBD, Sydney 28,939 and Melbourne 41,687. In high-demand areas, car parks can cost far more than the vehicle itself.

However, parking is not just an Australian problem. By some estimates, 30,000 square kilometres of land is devoted to parking in Europe and 27,000 km² in the US. This parking takes up a large part of city space, much of it highly valued, centrally located land.

Traditionally, transport planners believed that generous parking allocations provided substantial benefits to users. In reality, excessive parking is known to adversely affect both transport and land use. These impacts, along with recent land-use, socioeconomic and technological trends, are prompting cities to start asking some important questions about parking.

Australian planners must engage with emerging trends to help cities work out the best way to reclaim and repurpose parking space in ways that enhance efficiency and liveability while minimising disruption.

Here we chart likely challenges and opportunities created by these trends over coming decades.

Key trends affecting parking space in cities. Image: author provided.

Land use

All Australian cities have policies to encourage densification, consolidation and infill development in their centres. In conjunction, some cities are setting maximum limits on parking to prevent it taking over valuable inner-city properties.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) has also become popular, at least on paper. This is another form of urban consolidation around transit nodes and corridors. It is known to benefit from high-quality urban design, “walkability”, “cyclability” and a mix of functions.

These developments mean that people who live in CBDs, inner-ring suburbs and near public transport stops will use cars less. Consequently, demand for parking will decrease.

Some non-TOD suburbs are trying to replicate inner-city features as well. For example, some suburban shopping centres have introduced paid parking. This is a significant shift from previous eras, when malls guaranteed ample free parking.

Suburbanites who lack easy public transport access will continue to rely on cars. But rather than driving all the way to a CBD, commuters will increasingly opt for park-and-ride at suburban stations, thereby increasing demand for park-and-ride lots at public transport interchanges. However, excessive capacity might hurt rather than help patronage.

Social trends

In addition to land use, several social trends will affect the need for parking.

First, young people are delaying getting drivers’ licences because driving is culturally less important to them than in previous generations.

Second, people of all ages are moving from outer suburbs to inner cities. For many, this means less driving because walking, cycling and public transport are more convenient in inner cities.


inally, the emergence of Uber, Lyft and vehicle-sharing arrangements means that people are not buying cars. Research suggests that each car-sharing vehicle removes nine to 13 individually owned vehicles from the road.

Together, these trends point to a reduced need for parking because there will be fewer cars overall.


The importance of technology in parking is rising – paving the way for “smarter” parking.

The emergence of a host of smartphone apps, such as ParkMe, Kerb, ParkHound and ParkWhiz, has begun to reshape the parking landscape. For the first time, users can identify and reserve parking according to price and location before starting their journeys.

Apps also make available a host of car parks that previously went unused – such as spaces in a residential driveway. This is because there was no mechanism for letting people know these were available.

In addition, smart pricing programs, such as SFPark in San Francisco, periodically adjust meter and garage pricing to match demand. This encourages drivers to park in underused areas and garages and reduces demand in overused areas.

The advent of autonomous vehicles promises to have dramatic impacts on transport and land use, including parking.

According to one school of thought, mobility services will own most autonomous vehicles, rather than individuals, due to insurance and liability issues. If this happens, far fewer vehicles and parking spaces will be needed as most will be “in motion” rather than parked most of the time.

More space for people and places

The Tikku (Finnish for ‘stick’), by architect Marco Casagrande, is a house with a footprint of just 2.5x5m, the size of a car parking space. Image: Casagrande Laboratory.

The next decade promises much change as emerging land-use, socioeconomic and technological trends reshape the need for, and use of, parking. Cities will devote less space to parking and more space to people and places.

Parking lanes will likely be repurposed as cycling lanes, shared streets, parklets, community gardens and even housing. Concrete parking lots, and faceless garages will likely be converted to much-needed residential, commercial and light industrial use.

The ConversationBy transforming parking, much urban land can turn from wasteland into vibrant activity space.

Dorina Pojani, Lecturer in Urban Planning, The University of Queensland; Iderlina Mateo-Babiano, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning, University of Melbourne; Jonathan Corcoran, Professor, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and Neil Sipe, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.