How planners can help to save London's live music venues

Noise complaints from the residents of new homes next to live music venues are partly blamed for contributing to a 35 per cent drop in the number of such establishments in London since 2007.

Ministry of Sound: mayor welcomes club’s deed of easement of noise after its appeal over housing was refused (Pic: Simon Green)
Ministry of Sound: mayor welcomes club’s deed of easement of noise after its appeal over housing was refused (Pic: Simon Green)

A task force convened by London mayor Boris Johnson has made a range of planning policy proposals to preserve grassroots live music clubs. Citing lost venues such as the Marquee and the Astoria, it pointed to a 35 per cent fall in the number of smaller establishments in London since 2007 – from 136 to 88 – and warned that further decline threatens the UK music industry.

One driver for the trend is identified as the development of new homes next to clubs, prompting noise complaints that lead to business-damaging licence restrictions. The task force also found "widespread concern" that the permitted development rights changes allowing conversion of offices into homes without the need for full permission will exacerbate the problem. However, it accepted that rising rents, landlords selling venues to developers to turn into housing and "market failure in the music industry" are also contributory factors.

Its principal planning proposal is the adoption of an "agent of change" principle, used in Canada and Australia, to give existing venues primacy and make developers of housing near clubs responsible for noise management. Currently, longstanding venues have little protection against complaints from new neighbours. The report urges the mayor to incorporate the agent of change principle in the next version of the London Plan and issue supplementary planning guidance in the interim.

Other measures would require boroughs to refer to music venues and their "economic, cultural and social value" in new local plans and supplementary guidance. Boroughs are also advised to make more use of article 4 directions to stop venues being turned into housing and remove permitted development rights for the conversion of nearby offices.

Johnson has praised south London superclub Ministry of Sound for agreeing a deed of easement of noise with developers of a 41-storey residential tower being built opposite. Although this will be fitted with a range of soundproofing measures, the agreement gives the club immunity from complaints made by future residents so long as it operates at current noise levels. However, fighting the initial application and reaching the deal is understood to have cost the club over £1 million.

Tim Taylor, partner at law firm Foot Anstey, who represented Ministry of Sound, said the deal embodied the "agent of change" principle. "In the music industry, I’ve come across many examples of places that have been shut down because of residents’ complaints. There is an urgent need to protect clubs, and not just in London," he said. "But the idea that someone who moves into an area where there is a noise issue has to be responsible for making things all right is quite a substantial change to the legal position. I think you need a legally enforceable agreement to make that work."

North London venue Koko recently won a High Court challenge to the London Borough of Camden’s approval of plans to convert an adjacent pub into eight apartments, fearing that the scheme would lead to complaints about late-night noise and endanger its licence. Michael Dempsey, senior associate at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner which represented the club, is sceptical that anything can stop residents’ complaints once a property is occupied. "The only thing in the mayor’s control is supplementary planning guidance, which will allow councils to bring through relevant local policies. But it’s not something that will happen immediately," he said. Dempsey pointed out that Camden is one of just three London boroughs highlighted by the report as having local plans that include music venues. "All it does is recognise that there is a vibrant scene. It did not seem to influence its decision-making here," he said.

Mike Kiely, chairman of the board at the Planning Officers Society, said the problems faced by live music venues are mirrored when new housing is built near longstanding industrial sites. He said the deregulation of the planning system and developers’ appetite for new opportunities is exacerbating the situation. "I’m assuming that the ‘agents of change’ principle will be something in a section 106 agreement that makes it clear that the person is giving up the right to complain about noise," he said. "I’m a little doubtful about people saying they don’t mind noise, but maybe it is the case." Kiely added that the planning system could also look to ensure that music venues are provided as part of new schemes, and protect existing clubs and bars.

Battles for music venues 

1 The George Tavern, east London The owners of this pub and live music venue fear that a permission for six flats on a neighbouring site will lead to the loss of its late music licence. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets refused the scheme in 2013 but the decision was overturned at appeal. In August, landlady Pauline Foster lost a High Court challenge against the decision.

2 Koko, north London In August, the owners of this music venue overturned the London Borough of Camden’s approval of plans to convert an adjoining pub into eight flats. A High Court judge ruled that the council had not properly considered soundproofing measures or the scheme’s impact on the listed venue.

3 Ministry of Sound, south London The nightclub fought plans for a 41-storey residential tower opposite its home on the basis that residents would complain about late-night noise. Mayor Boris Johnson called in the London Borough of Southwark’s 2011 rejection of the proposals and overruled it, but additional soundproofing and a deed of easement of noise have been agreed to give the club immunity from complaints from new residents.

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