VENUES Facing the music
Grassroots music and arts venues are threatened by ever encroaching residential development. Patrick Kelly reports
The redoubtable East End pub landlady may be a fictional trope beloved of casting directors everywhere, but at the George Tavern in Stepney they have a real live version. Not that Pauline Forster is anything like a stock character. A successful designer who gave up her business to study art and was hauled off by police for staging an artistic intervention at the open- ing of Tate Modern, she took over the George Tavern in 2006 and has turned it into an iconic music venue and performance art hub. A string of celebrity acts have appeared here, often at the beginning of their career.
Last month, Pauline won an important victory in what’s been a 10 year- long battle to save her pub from possible closure. A planning inspector has just thrown out an application to build a block of flats next door to the George, backing Pauline’s objections.
Why would a pub turn away potential local customers? Because she is certain her new neighbours would complain about noise and the 3am licence that keeps her business going would be lost.
This isn’t a case of paranoia. In Manchester major gig venue Night & Day, which has seen the likes of Elbow and the Arctic Monkeys play there in its 23 year history, is under threat after a noise complaint. Despite backing from Elbow’s Guy Garvey, The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and the Musicians Union, the venue has been served with an abatement notice and Manchester City council is reviewing the club’s licence.
The Blind Tiger and Freebutt in Brighton and the 200 Club in Newport, Gwent, have closed as a result of noise problems. Another Newport pub has been forced to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise £10,000 to soundproof the roof after being served with a noise abatement notice.
And one of Bristol’s most famous venues, The Fleece, in business for 32 years, feared “a deluge of complaints” after developers decided to convert a neighbouring office block into flats. A joint campaign with Bristol City Council to insist that developers include sound insulation measures in their plans, has failed.
Not far away from the George, the Wapping Project, a creative arts project and café closed following a slew of complaints from nearby residents.
What’s more, a major report by the Mayor of London found that London has lost 50% of its nightclubs and 40% of its live music venues over the last eight years, many as a result of plan- ning and noise issues.
“We need work and office space in this area, not flats next to a music venue,” Pauline told the East London Advertiser, fresh from a celebratory concert to mark her court victory. “But it’s been marketed as ‘residential’. Each resident would have the right to complain about our noise.”
Tension between local residents and successful (and usually, noisy) venues is nothing new, of course. But recent legislation and new planning rules have made the situation much worse, says the Music Venue Trust, which campaigns for grassroots venues. The shortage of housing has encouraged developers to build on former industrial sites, where many music venues, attracted in past decades by cheap rents and lack of neighbours, have grown up. City centre sites are also attractive to developers, and most of these sites lie close to night-time venues.
There’s also a problem of attitudes, says the Trusts strategic director, Beverley Whitrick. Local councils say they are legally bound to investigate the complaints of council taxpayers, but fail to take into account the interests of venues, who are ratepayers and who contribute to the economic and commercial health of cities and towns. “Music venues are not perceived as cultural institutions in the same way that theatres or arts centres are. They are put in the same bracket as much more pro table enterprises like nightclubs and bars”.
She added that many grassroots venues are run on a shoestring and have no access to the lawyers and consultants who represent local authorities or developers.
“Venues are suffering up and down the country. Most of them are small businesses and they don’t really have the finances to fight this kind of thing, and they end up losing their business” adds Beverley.
Small grassroots venues have played a crucial role in the development of British music over the last 40 years, nurturing local talent, providing a platform for artists to build their careers and develop their skills, she points out.
It’s this contribution to the cultural life of city centres which is under threat, says MVT. Small venues form “the entire bedrock of the whole British music scene”, according to MVT founder Mark Davyd, who co-owns the Forum in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. “Without these music venues we simply will not have any musical talent coming through” he says.
The Music Venue Trust wants the UK to adopt the “agent of change” principle, which would force de- velopers who build a block of flats next to a venue that is not otherwise causing a nuisance, to pay for sound- proofing.
The idea has been adopted in Melbourne, and both the Greater London Authority and the Welsh Assembly have agreed to pursue similar proposals. But so far, despite support from MPs of all parties, the UK Government maintains that current regulations on noise nuisance should be upheld, with no ifs or buts.
“This problem is very fixable” says Michael Dugher, chief executive of UK Music which is launching a major campaign to protect grassroots music venues this autumn. “All that you need is a sensible planning sys- tem in place which means that the conflict between residents and venues doesn’t lead to closures.”
He believes that there is now widespread acceptance that the “change agents” rule should be part of statute. It was part of the Labour Party’s manifesto in the June election and he is hopeful that MPs will support the campaign.
The venues’ case has an unlikely supporter in the Noise Abatement Society, which agrees that many problems would be nipped in the bud if developers installed good insulation. It wants stricter requirements on the developer at the planning stage.
Meanwhile, Pauline Forster faces another problem. Just weeks after her celebrations, she heard that other developers who have put in a planning bid to convert an empty office block in Jubilee Street at the back of her pub into, what else, but 40 luxury flats.
The Music Venues Trust is organising its annual Venues Day on October 17 at the Ministry of Sound in London. De- tails from www.musicvenuestrust.com