‘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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Pursuing inclusive growth … will the Planning (Scotland) Bill be enough?

After months of anticipation, the Scottish Government has finally introduced the Scottish Planning Bill into Parliament this week. The need for reform was originally explored in 2015’s independent review (resulting in the report ‘Empowering planning to deliver great places‘) so progress has been relatively slow, with multiple workstreams and consultations working towards fulfilling the aims and aspirations of the review.

Ministers have insisted the Planning (Scotland) Bill will “improve the system of development planning, give people a greater say in the future of their places and support delivery of planned development”. The complexity of reform in this area is exemplified, however (if any evidence is needed), by the announcement at the end of November that the Draft Planning Delivery Advice on Housing and Infrastructure was to be withdrawn as (in the words of the Chief Planner) “there remain a number of areas of continuing disagreement”.

Enabling inclusive growth

The Bill proposes a number of measures including bolstering the status of the National Planning Framework, removing the requirement to produce strategic development plans and simplifying the processes for producing local development plans. The Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart, explained that “We should be focused on delivery rather than a continuous cycle of plan making”.

In a wide-ranging series of reforms, the Bill makes provision for simplified development zones. These are described as being “similar to, but will improve on, existing provisions for simplified planning zones. These will support more effective delivery of development through zoning of land, frontloading of scrutiny and aligning of consents.”

As expected, there is also a strong focus on empowering people and local communities and enabling them to have real influence on future development. The Bill includes a new right for communities to produce their own plans for their places. These ‘local place plans’ and their relationship to local development plans, has the potential to be complex.

At the time of the consultation on the Planning Bill, SPEL Journal highlighted concerns that community planning and land-use planning “speak to very different agendas” and the desire to reconcile the two presents difficult challenges.

As well as a number of changes to development management processes, the Bill also includes provision to strengthen enforcement powers, widen the scope of planning fees and introduce an infrastructure levy.

There is also a new requirement for members of planning authorities to undertake training.

Watch this space

Immediate responses to the Planning Bill seemed cautious.

The RTPI Scotland called for a “bold approach”. The Bill had “the right direction of travel and will fix some of the issues faced in planning our cities, towns and villages” However they questioned if it would be enough “to make the step change required for a world leading planning system.”

The Chair of the Scottish Alliance for People and Places, the Rt Hon. Henry McLeish commended  the significant consultation process that had led to this point, but said “there is space to build on its ambition” if Scotland is to achieve “a move to a much more inclusive, holistic and innovative system of planning”. This requires “articulating a compelling and positive vision for planning, rather than simply making technical changes”. Planning Aid Scotland chief executive Petra Biberbach said the Bill in its current form doesn’t go far enough on engagement and inclusivity and should be revised.

Concerns were also raised by the John Muir Trust over protection for Scotland’s landscape and environment. The JMT said it was disappointed by the Bill and that it risked introducing more centralising of control, in particular in relation to the balance between communities’ views and developers. “All this risks adding up to further, unaccountable ministerial decisions on issues better decided at a more local level.” As reported in SPEL Journal this year, the Trust has been involved in a number of planning appeals in the area of wind farm permissions and is a strong supporter, along with other organisations, of an Equal Right of Appeal for communities.

Completion of the Bill is subject to the Scottish Parliament’s timetable, but the Chief Planner has indicated that the Scottish Government expects it to be passed by the end of June 2018.

SPEL Journal (Scottish Planning & Environmental Law) is one of the leading resources on land use planning and environmental legislation across the country. During 2018, it will follow developments with the Planning Bill and provide expert commentary and analysis.

An annual subscription to SPEL Journal is £145. For further details or a sample copy, please contact Christine Eccleson, SPEL Journal’s Subscription Manager, on 0141 574 1905 or email christine.eccleson@idoxgroup.com.