This morning – after less than four hours sleep (memo to George: please send our electoral services people up to Sunderland to find out how they manage to count votes so quickly!) – I popped into The Fleece to talk about a current planning application which could threaten the future of the venue. There are plans to convert a nearby office block into flats, and the venue is naturally concerned that the new residents will, further down the line, despite having bought properties opposite a live music venue, start complaining about the noise. See here for their petition which already has over 21,000 signatures.
This is increasingly becoming a problem. I first got involved when the Exchange in Old Market got in touch, and venues in Manchester and Brighton have also come under threat. Night and Day in Manchester was served a nuisance notice threatening them with a £20,000 fine – or six months in jail – unless they turned the music down. There was a massive campaign against this, fronted by the likes of Guy Garvey.
Some of these issues are coming to the fore because of changes to permitted development rights, which make it much easier for developers to convert office accommodation into residential accommodation. Obviously we need more housing in Bristol and as the former MP for the Redcliffe area (there were boundary changes) and a local resident, I’d love to see the long mooted idea of a “Redcliffe Village” reach fruition. But the developers can’t ride roughshod over what is already an established fixture in the local community, which has been there for decades but has recently taken several years of investment to resurrect as a live venue.
I asked about this issue (briefly) in Parliament last autumn, in an Opposition Day debate on the High Street. I intervened on Hilary Benn, who was leading the debate for Labour, saying “I have been contacted by the owners of the Exchange, a music venue in Bristol—it is in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams). They took out new premises in a commercial area of Bristol, but have found out that there are plans to convert neighbouring properties into residential properties. They will therefore get noise complaints. They are concerned that, having invested in the new venture, they could be put out of business. Is that an example of what my hon. Friend describes?”
I wrote to the Planning Minister Nick Boles about it, but wasn’t reassured by his response; he seemed to think that market mechanisms would ensure even development (standard Tory response – leave everything to the market).The argument seems to be that the developer would take into account the noise potential when drawing up their scheme, and wouldn’t go ahead if they thought it would be a problem. What is more likely to happen though is that the developer will go ahead, and even if the initial residents can live with the noise of soundchecks in the late afternoon, gigs in the evening and club nights till 4am, eventually there will be some who complain.
I got a better response from the Council. An officer at the Planning Department was able to give some reassurance as to how future noise complaints would be handled by BCC – in particular, he said that they would “take into account the character of the area”. And in another email he also highlighted the need to enable a ‘thriving evening economy’ balanced against bringing new homes into the area. But it still leaves things open to chance.
Without going into too much detail about the intricacies of the planning system, here’s a brief guide to what the changes to permitted development rights mean for local communities:
A government statutory instrument, which came into effect on 30th May last year, changed planned permitted development rights (i.e. removed the requirement to seek planning permission before development can take place) in a number of ways including:
o Shops can become payday lenders or fast food restaurants for 2 years without planning permission
o Offices can become residential accommodation without planning permission – allowing for a change of use from B1(a) office to C3 residential – whether this is suitable locally or not
Local authorities were able to put in a request for a ‘local exemption’ from permitted development rights. Bristol along with 164 other local authorities asked for exemptions but only 17 were granted (of these 11 were in London). This decision-making process completely lacked transparency – and the government has given no rationale or criteria by which they chose which areas to exempt – ie major cities also including Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds and Liverpool were denied exemptions in favour of rural locations such as the Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire, Stevenage in Hertordshire, Ashford & Seven Oaks in Kent, East Hampshire (although Manchester City Council was given an exemption). Bristol CC decided against an Article 4 direction which is an alternative mechanism for returning this form of development to local authority control – as even the government recognises, many councils decide against using this because it can lead to further costs for them. This is eroding the powers needed by local authorities and local communities to shape their high streets and town centres to reflect local needs, demands and aspirations.
I am going to raise this with the current MP for the Redcliffe area, Stephen Williams, who also happens to be a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Fleece is not in my constituency, so I have no intention of fronting up the campaign, but I do want to support it as it obviously will affect people in Bristol East who like going to see bands there.
Just to reassure those who think this might be another example of a politician jumping on a bandwagon (well, there was one guy on Twitter who said this….) My interest in this is simple. I like going to see live music. I don’t get to do it as often as I like, and the Fleece has an annoying habit of booking bands I want to see on nights when I have to be in Parliament. I chair the All-Party Performers Alliance group in Parliament, which was set up by the Musicians Union (along with Equity and the Writers Guild) and I am a Vice-Chair of the All-Party Music Group too.
I’ve also recently become a patron of two music related organisations: Attitude is Everything, which campaigns to ensure better access to live venues for deaf and disabled people, and the Music Venue Trust, which is about securing the future of small independent venues.
So… those are my credentials. And at the risk of this becoming the longest blog post ever, here is the letter of objection I’ve just lodged with the Council. Technically the deadline has just passed but I’ve been told they will accept late submissions.
Ms C Sangway
Bristol City Council
St George’s Road
Bristol BS1 5UY
22nd May 2014
Dear Ms C Sangway,
APPLICATION REF. 14/01424/F – Site Address at 33-49 VICTORIA STREET, BRISTOL, BS1 6AD
I am writing to lodge an Objection to the above planning application. Please accept my apologies for submitting this letter after the deadline. I hope you will still consider submissions until the determination date.
I have a number of concerns about the effect of Government’s changes to permitted development rights which came into force on 30th May. This case demonstrates the adverse effect of the new regulations on existing businesses and illustrates how the process can undermine employment uses for buildings. The Fleece is one of Bristol’s main music venues being a key part in the vibrant music scene and cultural economy, attracting visitors into Redcliffe at night (from within and outside Bristol) and sustaining local employment.
In particular, I have become aware that these Government changes are having a negative impact on music venues. Noise complaints can of course cause real problems for well-loved music venues. For example, Night and Day in Manchester was served a nuisance notice earlier this year threatening them with a £20,000 fine – or six months in jail – unless they turned the music down. This is not a situation I would want to see arising at the Fleece. The incumbent music venue currently operates successfully and in harmony with neighbouring uses and its value should be recognised by the Council. Indeed, the introduction of apartments in such close proximity needs to be handled very carefully to ensure the Fleece is not penalised for simply continuing to exist.
I understand that the recent legislative changes to permitted development rights has made it more difficult for local authorities to shape city centres and high streets and to plan and manage development appropriately and evenly. In relation to a similar case in the city, I know the Planning Department was keen to sustain the “thriving evening economy” of the city centre, for example.
I would urge you to reject this application if the key flaws in it are not resolved. In particular, and set out in much greater detail and clarity by CSJ Planning in their letter of 12th May:
• I understand the applicant’s Environmental Noise Report has not captured the actual level of noise impact from the Fleece. It is critical that the developer gets a revised noise report which reflects the true impact from the noise. This would ensure that future development would include proper mitigation measures to fully noise proof the new homes, which would therefore most likely involve removing balconies and reducing bedrooms with windows on the St Thomas Street facade.
• In the event of approval, a condition should be placed upon the consent requiring acoustic testing of any sound insulation measures prior to first occupation. This will ensure these mitigation measures are actually effective and have been properly installed.
I understand that Bristol, along with 164 other local authorities, asked for a ‘local exemption’ from permitted development rights, but were refused. Only 17 were granted (of these, 11 in London).
I will be taking forward my concerns about the effect of these changes with the Government as well.
Thank you for your time in considering my letter.
Labour MP for Bristol East.