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March 21, 2018updated 29 Jul 2021 10:28am

Half of Bristol’s music venues are under threat. Blame developers

By Ciara Nugent

On a Sunday night in January 2018, a crowd gathered outside Cabot24, one of many new residential developments in Bristol, and began to scream. For around two hours, they shouted at those inside the building and even let off fireworks, one of which exploded near the face of a resident as she leant out of her window. The cause of the drama? The closure, in November, of music venue the Surrey Vaults. 

After two neighbouring office buildings were converted into flats last year, a series of noise complaints came flooding in from new residents. Unable to afford the tens of thousands of pounds it would cost to soundproof the venue, or the lawyers’ fees to fight for its licence in court, owner Julian Smith shut up shop, leaving former staff and patrons out in the cold.

“It really is devastating,” said Smith at the time “We did absolutely everything we could to keep our neighbours happy.”

It’s a pretty typical case (bar the fireworks) of what happens to music venues when residential developments pop up nearby, and it’s the problem tackled by the Agent of Change principle, which will be incorporated into the National Planning Policy Framework later this year. In the Surrey Vaults’ case, Agent of Change would have made it the responsibility of Cabot24’s developers to pay for soundproofing and to factor the venue into design decisions on things like door placement.

In Bristol, the Surrey Vaults is far from an isolated case. The last couple of years have seen the city become a key battleground for clashes between developers and music venues.

Nationally, according to the UK’s first live music census, about 29 per cent of venues are threatened by development, noise or planning issues. But in Bristol, a 2015 survey found that as much as 50 per cent of the city’s 90 music venues were affected. Mark Davyd, CEO of charity Music Venues Trust (MVT), says six of the eight Bristol venues that belong to MVT’s Music Venues Alliance are facing these problems.

So, why has Bristol been hit so hard? One reason is the density of venues in the city to begin with. Bristol has a young population and a reputation for nurturing musical talent, with the highest number of musicians relative to population size of any UK city. Live music generates £123m of revenue for the Bristol economy each year.

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But the real challenge for the city’s music venues is a huge wave of development, rippling out from the capital. “Once the developers have eaten London, they’ll eat everywhere else too,” says Davyd. 

More than 80 people are moving to Bristol from London every week, and one in every 100 people living in Bristol has moved from London in the past year, according to the ONS. All of these former Londoners have to move in somewhere. The city council wants to create 26,400 new homes by 2026.

“Bristol has had the had the largest number of office to housing conversions after London since 2013,” points out Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, referring to the introduction of Permitted Development, which allowed changes to land classes. This paved the way for a surge of office conversions, which are subject to fewer planning restrictions than new builds, leading to many of the current conflicts.

“Bristol was an early bell-weather of these changes when the Exchange and then the Fleece, had to deal with adjacent housing development that could proceed without proper sound-proofing,” says McCarthy. The council tried to make the developers soundproof by tacking the requirement on to another part of the planning permission, but this was overturned by the developers on appeal.

Both these venues now have flats next to them, as do Louisiana and the Academy, leaving them vulnerable to noise complaints. Two other venues – Thekla and The Fiddlers – have seen planning applications for neighbouring residential developments approved in the last six months.

McCarthy was an early sponsor of Agent of Change, and she is confident it will safeguard Bristol’s live music scene in the future. However, its requirements will only apply to developments approved once it is in force, leaving existing conflicts in an uncertain position.

“Planning law at the moment is in favour of the developers,” said Daniel Cleary, owner of the Fiddlers. “Just one complaint can close the venue.”

“Certainly for us it is too late,” says Alex Black, manager at Thekla, a nightclub on a former cargo ship in the city’s Mud Dock area, which in December lost an appeal against plans to convert derelict land 100 metres from the club into 36 luxury flats. “But we’re hoping that with all of this in the media there’ll be a catalyst to provoke some positive action from the developer. They have expressed the will to work with us. “I’d like to think that Bristol is a culturally diverse enough city that music and sanity will prevail.”

What’s more, MVT has asked the government to issue specific advice to Bristol so that local authorities can factor the imminent law change into their planning decisions.

Of course, the city’s music venues face many other challenges, including dramatic business rate increases. But many are hopeful that Agent of Change will mark a shift in the way music venues are treated by both developers and local authorities. “I think they’re starting to see that a lot of the things we’ve been asking for are just common sense,” says Davyd. “2018 is the year we’re expecting a lot of movement.”

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