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05/03/2020

The beat goes on: How planners can help secure the future of music venues

Words: Matt Moody

As the government cuts business rates for music venues after a long campaign, Matt Moody considers their role in the night-time economy and how planners can help to secure their future

Business rates

On London’s Oxford Street, sandwiched between a Boots and an Ann Summers shop, is an unassuming doorway that leads to arguably the capital’s most iconic music venue. Known for kickstarting the city’s punk rock scene in 1976 by showcasing then-unsigned bands The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Siouxie and the Banshees, the 100 Club holds a special place in music history.

In recent years, however, soaring overheads have threatened the venue’s existence, and only an intervention from Sir Paul McCartney saved it from closure in 2010.

That all changed last month when Westminster Council announced that the venue would become the first in the country to benefit from ‘localism relief’, a government policy that gives local councils the power to discount business rates for independent venues by up to 100 per cent.

In the same week, the government announced that all music venues with a rateable value of under £51,000 would receive an automatic 50 per cent business rates discount.

“The agent of change principle has certainly promoted the importance of protecting music venues, but it doesn’t stop people complaining”

Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, welcomed the changes, but warned that there’s still more to do. “It’s still unclear whether the changes to business rates announced for England will apply to the rest of the UK. For the country’s touring circuit to remain as closely interlinked as it is, it’s extremely important that venues in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales also have access to this relief.”

In London, however,  “the sheer value of land” poses a problem: 39 of 99 venues in the capital have a rateable value of more than £51,000, so won’t be eligible for the rates relief. In these cases, the localism relief mechanism is crucial, but councils have been reluctant to use it without a precedent.

“We needed one council to step up and say ‘this matters enough to us to use this mechanism’”, says Davyd, “and it’s great that Westminster, which is maybe seen as one of the more hardline councils on these issues, has done it. We’ve seen a lot of positive language from councils – particularly those that identify as ‘music cities’, but now that national government has responded, what we’ll be doing now is hammering home that message to local authorities that they need to take action.”


This must be the place

A recent report produced by the music consultancy Sound Diplomacy, titled This Must Be The Place after the Talking Heads classic, considers the role music venues play as part of the wider ‘cultural infrastructure’ in cities.

“We believe the value capture capabilities of music venues are quite substantial,” says Shain Shapiro, who founded Sound Diplomacy in 2013.

In addition to the boost they bring to other businesses nearby such as restaurants by attracting people to the area, venues are a crucial incubator for what Shapiro calls ‘workforce development tools’. “There’s so many different jobs that are happening in a music venue at any one time. As well as the artist on stage, there’s the accountant, the security, the bar staff, the sound technicians, the manager… music has a long supply chain,”

This economic contribution is something that planners need to recognise and enshrine in policy, Shapiro says. “The night-time economy is being mentioned more in local plans, but we still have a long way to go. Most councils don’t have a proper night-time economy plan, it’s just a couple of sentences – usually referencing something negative. They need to recognise the entire holistic ecosystem.”

For developers in particular, patience is key, he says. While music venues might not be as profitable as other land uses over a period of one or two years, their value is deeper than that.

“Music venues are not immediate moneymakers – they’re long-term capital, in investment terms. But that’s part of a wider theme – everything we’re doing, we should be looking 10 to 20 years down the line. We need to build things that last longer.”


Policy

Finances aside, running a music venue in 2020 remains fraught with challenges, many of which can lead to conflict with planners. Top of the list is the issue of noise: as cities grow, demand for housing is seeing more homes built close to venues.

In response to falling venue numbers through the 2010s, attempts have been made to protect them through policy. In 2018, the ‘agent of change’ principle finally became national planning policy in the UK following its inclusion in the revised NPPF. In short, the principle means that new developments will be responsible for managing the effects of existing noise-making uses. Its intention is to stop residents of new-build flats complaining about noise from nearby music venues that were there first.

In practice, however, the application of the policy has come in for a level of criticism. “The adoption of the agent of change principle has certainly promoted the importance of protecting music venues, but it doesn’t stop people from complaining,” says Tim Taylor, head of the planning team at law firm Foot Anstey.

Deeds of easement

One alternative solution championed by Taylor is the deed of easement, a legal agreement that allows residents to agree to a certain level of noise, protecting venues from complaints about noise below that level. It was first used as a mechanism for protecting a music venue in 2014, when Taylor brokered an agreement between the Ministry of Sound nightclub in South London and a developer planning to build 331 new homes nearby. Since then, Taylor has employed the mechanism to secure the future of two more venues – The Stables in Milton Keynes and the George Tavern in East London.

Another venue calling for a deed of easement to secure its future is Motion, a popular warehouse club in Bristol. The club is in a formerly industrial area close to the city’s main train station, which left it untroubled by noise complaints in the past. However, regeneration plans will bring the club into close proximity with housing, leaving its licence at risk.

“The agent of change principle is a good thing, but what concerns me slightly is that, after all the mitigation measures like improving insulation have been done, and people are still unhappy about noise levels, they can still complain,” says Dan Deeks, Motion’s manager. When the club came under threat in 2019, Deeks started a petition calling for a deed of easement to apply to the proposed development after finding no policy mechanism to secure one. The petition gathered almost 10,000 signatures.

“Deeds of easement are powerful once in place, but getting everyone involved to agree terms can be challenging”

The concern for developers, however, is that a deed will devalue their scheme. This, in turn, becomes a problem for councils because brownfield schemes are often only marginally viable, so any hit to profits could mean much-needed houses are not built at all. So although deeds of easement are powerful once in place, getting everyone involved to agree terms can be challenging.

In Deeks’ view, the mechanism would offer the developer protection by ensuring that prospective residents would be well aware in advance of the trade-off that comes with living close to a cultural hub. In any case, adds Taylor, if developers choose to build in urban areas close to existing venues, “they should accept that that comes with responsibilities”.


Artist’s view: Frank Turner

Musician Frank Turner is an ambassador for the Music Venue Trust.

“Independent venues provide a locus for a certain kind of culture to exist. Live music, replete with all the creative and community aspects that involves, needs a place to happen, a place that’s reliable and affordable.

“Recent years have been really tough for smaller, independent venues. That doesn’t mean the death of live music in toto, but it does mean that increasingly we’re left with larger, more corporate shows, a blander cultural diet, and nowhere for communities to gather in a musical context. That seems a real shame to me.

“The cuts to business rates are extremely welcome – rates are one of the toughest budget items for venues, and one that doesn’t get covered much in the press or in popular consciousness (they have a lot to do, in my opinion, with the much-vaunted “death of the high street”, but that’s another topic).”


Licensing

Another issue often raised by those working in the music industry is the relationship between planning and licensing. “The licensing system definitely needs reform,” says Shain Shapiro, who runs the music-focused consultancy Sound Diplomacy (see ‘This Must Be the Place’, above). “Bringing it in line with the planning system is a good idea because licensing decisions affect the same people in the same way as planning decisions.

“We need to make the argument that the licensing system in the UK should be thought of more as a planning tool than a regulatory, ‘health and safety’ tool. That’s not to discount the importance of those functions, but we need to realise the power that licensing can have in promoting culture.”

Nicola Beech, cabinet member for planning at Bristol City Council, sees licensing in a similar light.

“At the moment there are two regulatory environments with a gap between them, and things fall into that gap,” she says. “We need to ensure that when committee members are making decisions about music venues, licensing is interwoven into that process and there’s consistency between the two worlds.”

Outlook

Despite these challenges, there is evidence that things are improving.

“There’s sometimes this narrative that venues are all disappearing and need to be treated like museums, but we’re taking a different approach in Bristol,” says Beech. “It’s not just about preserving a diminishing resource – new venues are opening all the time. It’s easy to be pessimistic, and of course there are venues that have been struggling, but we’re finding more than ever there’s a real demand for a really high-quality night out – it’s not a race to the bottom.”

Figures published by the Mayor of London paint a similar picture. Although the number of venues in the capital fell from 144 to 94 between 2007 and 2016, the figure increased by 6 per cent between 2018 and 2019. Time will tell whether the deliverance of the 100 Club will mark a watershed moment for live music in the UK.

Matt Moody is a reporter for The Planner

Image credits | Getty Images

 

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