“A good week for the music scene”: so what do changes to permitted development mean for Britain’s nightlife?

Those were the days: fans at a 1977 Clash gig rip out the seats to make more room for dancing. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.