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."


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.