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.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”