‘Agent of Change’ protects music venues from noise complaints, but won’t stop them from closing

This guest blog was written by Marion Roberts, Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

A Conservative minister for housing, a grey-haired Labour MP, ageing icons of rock and creative young people have formed an unlikely alliance in support of the Agent of Change (Planning) Bill. The proposed law, which will be discussed for the second time in the House of Commons on March 16, makes developers responsible for dealing with noise issues when they build new homes near music venues.

This all came about because people were worried about the high number of live music venues that were closing across the UK. The Greater London Authority (GLA) asked for a report on London’s grass roots music venues, only to find that 35% of them had been “lost” since 2007. Cities across the nation – from Glasgow to Manchester – have similar stories to tell, even though the government has recognised how important the music industry is for the economy.

So how did this happen? Many different governments since around the year 2000 have tried to get more flats and houses built in cities, because there aren’t enough for everyone who wants to live there. Many homes have been built on “brownfield” sites – where there used to be factories or warehouses, which are now used less or not at all. These types of places also offered spaces where creative entrepreneurs could set up new clubs, or take over existing venues and attract new customers with the offer of live music.

Buyer beware

But as people move into the new flats built on these sites (which they often pay a lot of money for) some inevitably complain about the noise coming from the venues. Venue owners in Shoreditch (one of London’s hip neighbourhoods) actually put up signs warning would-be buyers that there are live music venues in the area.

Up until now, these complaints caused big problems for music venue owners, because planning principles were not on their side. The onus was on them to ensure their neighbours weren’t disturbed by music and loud noises. But putting in proper soundproofing or keeping customers quiet can be difficult and expensive.

This doesn’t just affect the kind of places run on a shoe string on the outskirts of town. Even London’s mighty Ministry of Sound – which has been a mecca for House music lovers since 1991 – was caught up in a lengthy planning application for a tower block of flats nearby – a case which eventually ended in the flats having to be soundproofed.

A matter of principle

The way the planning system works, is that local authorities in England and Wales produce their own development plans, which must align with national policy as set out in a 2012 document called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This document made a small move to protect venues, by saying that if they wanted to expand, then there should be no unreasonable restrictions. But it didn’t address the situation described above.

Some local authorities have already started to draw up their own policies, which put the burden of noise reduction measures firmly on the developer who is making the change – whether it’s for flats or other uses. This is the legal principle, known as the “Agent of Change”. The bill, now supported by government, will ensure that the principle is embedded in the NPPF – so all local authorities will have to follow it. It will also carry more weight in appeals against planning decisions.

Although the “Agent of Change” principle will help prevent live music venues from closing, it won’t be enough on its own. Sadly, it would not address other issues such as rising rents, hikes in rateable values and property owners preferring to redevelop their buildings into flats. For example, consultancy firm Nordicity estimated that a revaluation of business rates would cause a fifth of London’s grass roots venues to close. And London’s oldest LGBTQ venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, is still engaged in a battle to save it from redevelopment, by way of a community buy out.

Yet past examples show that people can save their local pubs from closure, whether through local campaigning or by taking ownership of the buildings. And to see creativity and culture, especially for young people, supported through the dusty corridors of parliament, is truly heart warming.

Marion Roberts is Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Sound advice on noise nuisance: how local authorities are helping residents tackle noisy neighbours

By James Carson

Last year, a survey for Churchill Home Insurance reported that in the first nine months of 2013 nearly 500,000 complaints had been made to UK local authorities. By far the biggest single issue concerned noisy neighbours. Loud voices and arguing, loud music or television, and doors slamming were among the greatest annoyances.

The impact and cost of noise

On the face of it, noise from a neighbouring property might not appear as serious as other types of anti-social behaviour, such as physical assault or vandalism. But the effects of undesired noise on the quality of life, health and wellbeing of individuals can be severe and enduring.

Among the risks of intrusive noise identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are:

  • altered behaviour (such as aggression or feelings of helplessness)
  • sleep disturbance
  • cardiovascular effects
  • reduced academic and professional performance.

A recent report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment underlined the health effects of neighbour noise, finding “surprisingly widespread health effects of residential noise annoyance, with neighbour noise relatively more damaging than street noise.”

For local authorities, tackling noisy neighbours is one of the most challenging aspects of their work. Unlike traffic or airport noise, neighbour noise can be unpredictable and difficult to measure.

Dealing with noise complaints also imposes substantial costs on local councils. A 2012 Defra report found that:

  • it takes local authority environmental health departments in England between 3 and 5 hours, on average, to negotiate the complaints procedure
  • the cost of each complaint investigation is estimated to be between £130 and £270 per complaint
  • a convoluted incident requiring significant council input was estimated to cost between £3,400 and £6,810.

Addressing nuisance noise

Most councils advise residents to try to resolve noise nuisance by talking to their neighbours about the problem. Mediation may also be an option. Brighton and Hove Council is one of a number of local authorities offering an independent mediation service to help resolve disputes between neighbours. The service reports that 80% of cases that go to mediation are successful.

If these attempts fail, most local authorities, such as Dartford Borough Council have teams dedicated to tackling antisocial behaviour, and some, such as East Lothian Council, employ teams specifically targeting noise nuisance. Westminster City Council has gone further by developing a comprehensive noise strategy and setting up a 24-hour noise team.

Where evidence is obtained, local authority officers have the power to issue a warning notice. If this is ignored, the local authority or the police may issue a £100 fixed penalty notice, and may also take steps to seize and remove noise-making equipment.

Some individuals may resort to legal action in a Magistrate’s Court (the Sheriff Court in Scotland), using Section 82 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.  To be successful, claimants need to persuade the court that the noise is a ‘statutory nuisance’, having a substantial and negative affect on their home life. If the action is successful, the court will give the offending neighbour a noise abatement order and may also impose a fine. However, taking this route may be expensive, and there is no guarantee of success.

Obtaining evidence of domestic noise can be difficult, especially if the noise is intermittent, or neighbours become aware that a noise team is in the vicinity. To counter this, some councils are turning to technology.

Newham Council, in East London, receives around 155 noise complaints each week. To support its efforts in tackling noise nuisance, the council has been using noise nuisance recorders. These portable machines may be left in a complainant’s home to record noise levels over a 7-10 day period, and can help determine whether they constitute a statutory nuisance. The machines have also been adopted by councils in Hull and Wakefield. However, many local authorities continue to maintain that noise nuisance must be witnessed by enforcement officers if further action is to be taken.

A higher volume of complaints

Noise is a fact of modern life, especially within higher-density urban areas, but there are signs that people are becoming less tolerant of noise pollution. Which means that hard-pressed local authorities are likely to face increasing numbers of complaints about noisy neighbours from residents unwilling to suffer in silence.


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Further reading*

Noisy neighbours (guidance for noise impact assessments)

Anti-social neighbours in private housing (House of Commons Library standard note SN01012)

New sense on nuisance? (nuisance claims)

More effective responses to anti-social behaviour

The Dutch residential nuisance scale: an outcome measure for reported nuisance in subgroup analysis

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service