“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.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.