Half of Bristol’s music venues are under threat. Blame developers

Well, at least you can still buy music in Bristol. Image: Getty.

On a Sunday night in January 2018, a crowd gathered outside Cabot24, one of many new residential developments in Bristol, and began to scream. For around two hours, they shouted at those inside the building and even let off fireworks, one of which exploded near the face of a resident as she leant out of her window. The cause of the drama? The closure, in November, of music venue the Surrey Vaults. 

After two neighbouring office buildings were converted into flats last year, a series of noise complaints came flooding in from new residents. Unable to afford the tens of thousands of pounds it would cost to soundproof the venue, or the lawyers’ fees to fight for its licence in court, owner Julian Smith shut up shop, leaving former staff and patrons out in the cold.

“It really is devastating,” said Smith at the time “We did absolutely everything we could to keep our neighbours happy.”

It’s a pretty typical case (bar the fireworks) of what happens to music venues when residential developments pop up nearby, and it’s the problem tackled by the Agent of Change principle, which will be incorporated into the National Planning Policy Framework later this year. In the Surrey Vaults’ case, Agent of Change would have made it the responsibility of Cabot24’s developers to pay for soundproofing and to factor the venue into design decisions on things like door placement.

In Bristol, the Surrey Vaults is far from an isolated case. The last couple of years have seen the city become a key battleground for clashes between developers and music venues.

Nationally, according to the UK’s first live music census, about 29 per cent of venues are threatened by development, noise or planning issues. But in Bristol, a 2015 survey found that as much as 50 per cent of the city’s 90 music venues were affected. Mark Davyd, CEO of charity Music Venues Trust (MVT), says six of the eight Bristol venues that belong to MVT’s Music Venues Alliance are facing these problems.

So, why has Bristol been hit so hard? One reason is the density of venues in the city to begin with. Bristol has a young population and a reputation for nurturing musical talent, with the highest number of musicians relative to population size of any UK city. Live music generates £123m of revenue for the Bristol economy each year.

But the real challenge for the city’s music venues is a huge wave of development, rippling out from the capital. “Once the developers have eaten London, they’ll eat everywhere else too,” says Davyd. 

More than 80 people are moving to Bristol from London every week, and one in every 100 people living in Bristol has moved from London in the past year, according to the ONS. All of these former Londoners have to move in somewhere. The city council wants to create 26,400 new homes by 2026.

“Bristol has had the had the largest number of office to housing conversions after London since 2013,” points out Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, referring to the introduction of Permitted Development, which allowed changes to land classes. This paved the way for a surge of office conversions, which are subject to fewer planning restrictions than new builds, leading to many of the current conflicts.

“Bristol was an early bell-weather of these changes when the Exchange and then the Fleece, had to deal with adjacent housing development that could proceed without proper sound-proofing,” says McCarthy. The council tried to make the developers soundproof by tacking the requirement on to another part of the planning permission, but this was overturned by the developers on appeal.

Both these venues now have flats next to them, as do Louisiana and the Academy, leaving them vulnerable to noise complaints. Two other venues – Thekla and The Fiddlers – have seen planning applications for neighbouring residential developments approved in the last six months.

McCarthy was an early sponsor of Agent of Change, and she is confident it will safeguard Bristol’s live music scene in the future. However, its requirements will only apply to developments approved once it is in force, leaving existing conflicts in an uncertain position.

“Planning law at the moment is in favour of the developers,” said Daniel Cleary, owner of the Fiddlers. “Just one complaint can close the venue.”

“Certainly for us it is too late,” says Alex Black, manager at Thekla, a nightclub on a former cargo ship in the city’s Mud Dock area, which in December lost an appeal against plans to convert derelict land 100 metres from the club into 36 luxury flats. “But we’re hoping that with all of this in the media there’ll be a catalyst to provoke some positive action from the developer. They have expressed the will to work with us. “I’d like to think that Bristol is a culturally diverse enough city that music and sanity will prevail.”

What’s more, MVT has asked the government to issue specific advice to Bristol so that local authorities can factor the imminent law change into their planning decisions.

Of course, the city’s music venues face many other challenges, including dramatic business rate increases. But many are hopeful that Agent of Change will mark a shift in the way music venues are treated by both developers and local authorities. “I think they’re starting to see that a lot of the things we’ve been asking for are just common sense,” says Davyd. “2018 is the year we’re expecting a lot of movement."


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.