The UK planning system finally recognises the ‘Agent of Change’ principle. So now what?

A woman dances in a nightclub. Image: Getty.

In August 2018, the UK Parliament passed an amendment to the National Planning & Policy Framework (NPPF), including a few sentences collectively referred to as the ‘Agent of Change’ Principle. Now, in England, any new development – residential, commercial or otherwise –planned for a site next to a noise-making premises would need to mitigate any potential risk to the existing premises, before receiving planning permission.

The new rule applies not just for music venues and nightclubs on high streets next to new developments; but also light industrial, factories and ‘back-of-house’ creators, such as art studios, instrument makers and textile manufacturers. It also defends existing residential developments: if a music venue wished to open in a quiet neighbourhood, it would need to demonstrate soundproofing, quiet dispersal and other requirements to get planning permission.

This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not a panacea, because there isn’t one. Local plans need to be rewritten and this rule must be respected in local decisions. There will be missteps – but the introduction of Agent of Change is a start to creating a more sustainable, healthy and supportive music and creative ecosystem in London and across England.

But we need to do more. So, what’s next on the list?

Here’s a few ideas that I feel are worth pursuing, so we can make the UK the world’s best place for musicians, creatives and all of us who benefit from, or interact with, their creative output.

1. Ratify Agent of Change in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

This is a simple request, but one which requires local change in each country. Both Scotland and Wales have brought bills to their parliament to introduce this in their planning systems. It would be beneficial for the entire country, not just England, to make Agent of Change law.

2. Re-engage a debate about licensing

This is not specifically a British problem – mixing alcohol, live music and regulation, primarily at night, causes headaches everywhere. From Pittsburgh to Tbilisi, Tokyo to Bogota, striking a balance in regulating the night time economy is a challenge that divides communities.

But the current system here in the UK certainly doesn’t work. Local engagement in licensing hearings is low, and the people who chair and run these committees are often not the same people experiencing, and benefitting from, the activities they are regulating. The average age of a UK Councillor is over 60 (although this is gradually changing); and reactionary decisions create a mistrust in civic society: look at the London Borough of Hackney, for example.


In addition, since last year’s thorough licensing review by the House of Lords, which outlined the failures in the interpretation of the 2003 Licensing Act, nothing’s been done. A reduction in local authority staff and an increase in workload has compounded this problem: complicated, life-altering decisions are being made by those who lack the experience to do so.

The current failing regime is even putting further unnecessary stress on our health and social care system. Folkestone’s licensing framework, for example, recently introduced changes to limit evening and night time economy uses: Kent Online referred to the changes as a “final nail in the city’s coffin”, because it will further lead to the city attracting pensioners, rather than the young workers needed to support social care. This is not inevitable: further up the coast, Margate, is doing the opposite.

Across England, there have been a number of successful schemes promoting the benefits of the Night Time Economy. London has a Night Czar, Manchester a Night Mayor and Plymouth a Night Time Manager. More cities have joined the Purple Flag accreditation scheme for places that offer a good night out.

But such progress is still not reflected in policy. Licensing decisions are still based on negatives. And when locals can object to a business before its doors even open, that objection will be based on what it represents, rather than what it is.

So: let’s talk more about licensing.

3. Prioritise Our Small Towns and Cities More

I’m proud of being a small cog in the big machine that has worked to improve the music policy ecosystem in London. While we’ve had successes, there’s much work to do there.

But I feel now’s the time to prioritise the music infrastructure in our small towns and cities – and recognise that, to incubate talent, we need to start at all sources. Many small towns and cities, from Peterborough to Wells, Oban to Fishguard, have seen decreases in their music infrastructure since 2010. Only a few local music organisations remain – the rest were victims of austerity – and venues in which to play are closing, with new artists now relying on their parents, or infrequent night buses, to take advantage of performance opportunities.

This creates a talent development framework that relies more on uploading covers to YouTube than on engaging with one’s peers. Mix that with a reduction in music education provision, less budget for music services and the closure of youth clubs, and you get a perfect storm in which, in essence, we forget about the talent in our small towns and cities.

This must change. We need a national music towns strategy to audit existing infrastructure, ensure it is protected through the planning and licensing system as best as possible, and provide the tool for local authorities to better promote venues. We need a mechanism to turn vacant buildings over to creatives, on peppercorn rent, as practice facilities. We need all BIDs and LEPs to develop music policies and treat music as an industry, like any other. All this is possible.

We have much work to do in the UK. Here’s hoping next year, we have more to celebrate to ensure we’re continually creating the most music friendly country on the planet.

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Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.