Are developers jeopardising the future of Bristol’s music venues?

23 May 2019

Bristol is booming. When National Geographic Traveller listed it in their ‘2018 Cool List’ between Singapore and Paris, they described it as ‘gone from colonial-era industrial savvy to leftfield creativity’ and asked if there was a British city with more indie spirit. In 2018 the Office of National Statistics published figures showing that over 80 people each week were moving here from London – with movers from Hackney more likely to relocate here than anywhere else in the country.

Is Bristol’s ‘leftfield creativity’ sustainable?

But Bristol music isn’t booming as much as it used to. Ironically for a city appearing on so many cool lists, the biggest talking point amongst independent music venue operators today is whether or not its ‘leftfield creativity’ can be sustained. When Bristol MP Thangham Debonnaire hosted a discussion group for venue operators at the Exchange in Old Market, the most common complaint (besides kids these days being too health-conscious and not binge drinking like they used to) was the threat of property development delivering residents dangerously close to their doors. As Bristol becomes more popular as a place to live, city centre residential densities are intensifying and offices within earshot of venues are being converted to flats.

Complaints and closures

Most of these office-to residential conversions have been permitted with little control from local authorities, through new Permitted Development rights introduced in 2013. Before then, these conversions would have been refused if they impinged too much on the operations of licensed venues. Often built cheaply with little acoustic mitigation, these kinds of developments have resulted in a rise in noise complaints from incoming residents. Such complaints had played a major role in the closure of at least two popular Bristol venues by the end of 2017 – Surrey Vaults and Roll for the Soul. Bierkeller went soon after, citing the refurbishment of their building for higher-end offices as the breaking point in their 20+ year existence.

Recently this year, the Brunswick Club closed its doors after a planning appeal to turn the building into offices succeeded on heritage grounds. This came despite recognition from the City Council and the Inspector of its importance as a community arts venue, and that its loss would likely lead to a deficit in community facilities in the area. Colston Hall, which could hardly be more in the heart of the action, was forced to move its occasional outdoor terrace parties inside because of complaints from a small number of neighbours. Lakota – which opened in Stokes Croft in 1989 and has been pivotal in the development of Bristol’s underground music history since – recently announced it is to be sold off for redevelopment, mainly due to the creep of surrounding residential development and allocation for housing in the council’s Central Area Plan.

Further out of the centre, Motion’s massive sound-leaking warehouse raves look like an uncomfortable neighbour next to Bristol University’s £300m Temple Quarter Campus plans, complete with high-rise residential tower blocks. Meanwhile Hamilton House, Thekla, the Exchange and the Fleece are all publicly campaigning for their future as developers and council planners propose high density living closer to the mosh pit.

Part of the natural cycle?

Maybe the loss of these venues could be seen as a natural cycle in the night-time economy if they were being replaced. But there aren’t. And, more worryingly, it doesn’t look as though there are real opportunities for them to be. This is because competition for new property is fierce and new licenses are hard to come by in the centre due to the Council’s ‘cumulative impact area’ policy.

Likewise, due to the smoking ban, properties need large outdoor smoking areas out of earshot of residents. Nearly all premises which might have once been suitable now have people living either immediately above them or nearby. In 2018 a relatively innocuous audiophile bar named Edit on the bustling Cheltenham Road opened and closed within just 6 months, partly due to complaints from people living in student flats above and a restricted license which proved impossible to amend.

Lapping up Bristol’s culture

As punters watch their venues flounder, the question time and time again on their lips is this: What did these people expect when they bought a flat next to a music venue? There seems to be a growing tension between the desirability of (and need for) city centre living and the need to protect the culture that makes it desirable in the first place.

Sites in need of intervention

Are developers to blame? Ultimately, no. It is inevitable that investors will build high density homes in these locations when demand is huge and policy says it is OK. There is a desperate need for homes in sustainable locations and many of the sites being built out are brownfield or empty buildings in need of intervention, with residential being the most profitable option. Developers will also have to incorporate sound-proofing measures where planning conditions dictate it, though admittedly the effectiveness of these can be variable.

The real issue is one of ineffective application (and weight) of policy on soundproofing new buildings and weak enforcement powers to counter unjust noise complaints post-completion. When introduced, office-to-residential permitted development had to pass a series of tests by way of a ‘prior approval’ application. But mitigating against noise from existing businesses was not one of them. This was changed in 2016 following a campaign from Music Venues Trust and as legislators realised their error and scrambled to halt the massive decline in licensed premises happening in London. But by then it was too late – Prior Approvals had been secured, residents had already moved in and their statutory rights to a quiet night’s sleep took precedent.

Policy on pollution

Policy on noise pollution has, to some extent, always sought to protect the ongoing operation of long-standing noisy businesses – including industrial uses – from new development. There are also routes to mitigation that are relatively untested such as the use of Section 106 funds to pay for better sound-proofing within the venues themselves.

Mechanisms have been bolstered more recently by the Agent of Change principle, which places the responsibility for soundproofing on any developers building homes near noisy uses. But without similar principles applied more rigorously in planning, licensing and enforcement, these policies are likely to be ineffective on their own against the inevitable tide of development.

Precedents for post-construction protection

Some precedents have been set for more rigorous post-construction legal protection in London. Developers building near to the Ministry of Sound have signed a legally binding ‘deed of easement’ with the venue effectively waiving new residents’ rights to complain about noise. Earlier this year, this was also rolled out to protect the George Tavern – a much smaller pub in Stepney. But these examples remain rare, requiring co-operation between landowners and a high level of organisation from the venues themselves.

Places where culture happens

Bristol City Council’s ‘Urban Living SPD’ recognises that the highest housing densities should be located in the most accessible and sustainable locations, and that ‘different land uses should be mixed together; residential above businesses and community uses should become common  place’. But it does not properly recognise that these locations are also often places where noisy, life-affirming culture happens, and that this should be protected. Until there is a better understanding and integration of the issue within policy, licensing and enforcement, the long-term viability of Bristol’s famous music traditions – and the city’s night-time economy – looks precarious. The delivery of desperately-needed homes through city centre densification brings with it real opportunities for culture in Bristol to be strengthened and to become more viable.

But this must be balanced with stronger policy initiatives to both protect existing venues and deliver spaces where new cultural facilities and venues can take root.

Leigh Dennis is Nash Partnership’s Planning and Regeneration Research Manager.