Last week was a good one for the UK’s live music scene and its future prospects. Monday saw the Music Venues Trust (MVT), a charity that seeks to protect the UK’s small to medium size music venues, announce that it’s won an important victory in the battle to stop property developers and local councils making short-term profits at the expense of the UK’s small gig venues – or the spaces they used to reside in, anyway.
As Monday’s statement on the MVT’s Facebook page explains:
“From 6 April 2016, local planning authorities will have to consider noise impacts on new residents from existing businesses under an amended permitted development right.
“Permitted development rights have been extended in recent years and allow certain developments to take place without the need to go through the full planning system. The new regulations mean developers are now required to seek prior approval on noise impacts before a change of use from an office to residential building can be carried out.
“In short - you can't change offices to flats any more if a music venue is nearby, developers will need to work with the local authority and the music venue to ensure that live music is protected.”
This is huge news for the UK music scene – and timely news for people who rely on it for their livelihood. MVT figures show that more than a third (35 per cent) of London’s small venues – the places where tomorrow’s talent develops – have closed in the last eight years.
Meanwhile, industry lobby group UK Music has found that 50 per cent of Bristol’s music venues have been affected by development issues. This is no small number: the Bristol music scene generated £123m in revenues last year, as well as 927 full time equivalent jobs.
The new rules are not a full Agent Of Change law – one under which responsibility for compliance with noise regulations would shift to the developer, as long as the venue stays within its license. (The MVT recommended this change last year in a report entitled “Understanding Small Venues”.)
But it’s still a huge step in the right direction. As Jo Dipple, the chief executive of UK Music, said: “If these new regulations have the desired effect, grassroots venues around the UK will have additional powers to help them survive and prosper.”
But at a time when new housing is much needed, and much called for, isn’t that a more pressing concern than protecting a load of gig venues?
The UK certainly needs affordably-priced housing – but the luxury developments that are displacing music venues throughout the country are not what you’d call affordable (unless, of course, you happen to be David Cameron).
The choice between housing and night life is anyway a false one, argues the MVT’s Mark Dayvd. “For music venues, this has never been about stopping development or preventing the creation of much needed new housing,” he says. “It's always been about ensuring that new development recognises the culture, economy and vibrancy of city centres by building great housing, enabling existing music venues and new residents to live in harmony.”
In other words, the new rules should make it more likely that the things that made these areas interesting in the first place will be left intact while the developers do their thing.
The view from the dance floor
While this legislation is based on live music, these issues affect clubs as well. So how has the industry responded to the changes?
Carl Loben, the editor of DJ Magazine, is cautiously optimistic. “It’s obviously great news that music venues are having some level of increased protection,” he said. “But to my mind it doesn’t go far enough. We need a full Agent Of Change law to protect existing venues in a fully comprehensive manner.”
“I’m sure this will help save many live music venues and clubs, though, and that is to be celebrated.”
Alex Benson, the co-founder of Bloc Festival, agrees that the problem is the planning system. “The problem with the permitted development rule is that it made it far too easy to create a very lucrative housing block out of a bunch offices and that needed to be tightened up, really.
“Our country has a fetish for buying houses and it’s detrimental to the future of our cities,” he goes on. “Permitted development rules allow people to create more housing stock more easily than ever before – and often the impact will be that the places that we need to go out and enjoy ourselves are just being turned into part of the property bubble that is wrecking the UK. So anything that limits those rules has got to be a good thing.
So could the new legislation help the UK’s music scene? “I really hope it will,” Benson says. “But with the application of planning law, it’s always done by local authorities, not central government, and each local authority will interpret it differently. It will depend very much on the local areas at the time.”
With UK music topping the charts internationally and the likes of even Drake talking about signing to a UK label – grime powerhouse Boy Better Know – it seems ridiculous that we need to defend the UK’s grassroots music spaces. But defend them we must. Luxury flats won’t create another Beatles or Rolling Stones, another Danny Rampling or Andrew Weatherall, or another Stormzy or Little Simz.
Music culture can be both profitable and culturally viable: just look at Shoreditch in east London, or Manchester’s Northern Quarter. But unless we want the UK’s music scene to be part of its past, rather than its present, we must to fight to save it – now.
Manu Ekanayake is a freelance music and lifestyle writer. He tweets as @manueky.