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With night-time venues under threat and struggling financially, policy-makers are pushing for policies to tackle the housing crisis without ruining Bristol’s beloved nightlife.

Photo Credit: DHP Family / Rowan Quarry

The campaign to save one of the city’s best-loved music venues has again reignited the debate about how residents and ravers can live side-by-side, as more much-needed housing is built across Bristol.

The future of iconic music venue Thekla has been called into question after Bristol City Council granted planning permission to a residential development across the water at Redcliffe Wharf.

Planning permission was granted for office spaces, restaurants and 36 residential flats – of which just three are affordable housing – despite the council admitting an initial noise survey by the developers was insufficient. There are now fears that new residents might complain about noise from Thekla.

Since 2007, a third of grassroots music venues and half of nightclubs in the UK have closed down. Bristol is no different, with a 2015 report by UK Music identifying that half of the city’s 90 music venues were affected by development, noise or planning issues.

Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, says he has dealt with around 30 similar cases in recent years, where developers underestimated noise in planning stages but later shifted responsibility, and therefore costs, onto venues when problems arose.

“Developers aren’t thinking about how they can shut down Thekla, but the point is that they don’t want to accept the cost. Ultimately if they don’t get it right, either the venue or the residents will lose out. There’s no winner.”

Since 2007, a third of grassroots music venues and half of nightclubs in the UK have closed down. Bristol is no different, with a 2015 report by UK Music identifying that half of the city’s 90 music venues were affected by development, noise or planning issues.

Two live music pubs shut down earlier this year, the Stag and Hounds and the Kingsdown Wine Vaults, and the Surrey Vaults recently became the latest to close because of noise complaints.

It remains unclear if Thekla could follow, as the first survey hasn’t resolved if noise from the venue would affect new residents. However, the developer has agreed to work on a second noise survey.

Davyd, who works to support venues through this process, describes the first noise survey as “completely inadequate”, because “it paid no attention to the fact Thekla was there at all”.

“What we now have is a developer that has permission to build there, so when we do the second noise survey there’s likely to be arguments about how much noise is made,” he tells the Cable.

Julie Tippins, head of compliance for Thekla’s owners, DHP Family, had called for the development to be delayed until the second survey was completed. She tells the Cable she hopes it will “identify what additional measures the developer should take to eliminate any noise disturbance to the future residents”.

The agent of change principle

The key to avoiding these disputes is to introduce the agent of change principle, Davyd says.

This means those responsible for the change are responsible for managing its impact, so would force developers to soundproof new flats near late-night venues.

There is cross-party support for the agent of change principle, Davyd says, and London mayor, Sadiq Khan, recently confirmed its inclusion in the next London Plan, the long-term development strategy for the capital.

London’s first Night Czar, Amy Lamé, is already using the principle to support venues under threat from developments and has galvanised the campaign to protect night-time culture. A year after her appointment, the tide is turning in the capital as venues now have a figure to rally around.

One supporter of enshrining agent of change into law is Bristol East MP, Kerry McCarthy, who has sponsored a backbench bill soon to be presented to parliament by her Labour colleague, John Spellar MP.

“Incorporating the agent of change principle into planning law would certainly help protect the future survival of a growing number of music venues,” she tells the Cable.

“It would set a very clear precedent that developers soundproof homes in areas with pre-existing entertainment venues – and closes a worrying loophole where developers can move into a cheaper area because of its proximity to a music venue, but by failing to provide adequate sound insulation can ultimately force the venue’s closure.”

McCarthy has campaigned for other Bristol venues in the past, including Exchange and The Fleece. The latter has been under threat ever since the council approved the transformation of nearby offices into flats in 2014.

The venue has managed to stay open but its future is far from secure. In 2016, The Fleece’s owner, Chris Sharp, was part of a successful campaign to change permitted development rights to require developers to seek prior approval on noise impacts before offices can be converted into residential properties.

Although planning law can be reformed at local level, as seen in the capital, it is arguably these kind of changes at national level are the most effective way to protect late-night venues.

Struggling start-ups

However, it is not just long-established venues that have to adapt to the ever-changing face of the city. It is even more difficult to set up new venues – as experienced by The Jam Jar, an independent community arts space in St Judes.

Four years after converting a dilapidated warehouse, The Jam Jar collective are crowdfunding to make their venue meet the required standards to get a premises license, which would allow them to open late and serve alcohol.

Co-founder Hadie Abido tells the Cable: “Getting this far has been an extremely long road for us, but the end is in sight. We have outlined the works that are essential, sought legal advice and are ticking off boxes one by one.”

This difficult process is “part of the reason that small venue spaces like ours are popping up less and less”, he says.

The collective feels responsibility to sort out soundproofing, but recently received a “mixed response” after trying to engage more with local residents.

“I don’t expect they will warm to us overnight, but our ideal situation is to involve the local community in what we do and live harmoniously,” Abido adds.

Thekla’s Julie Tippins says: “There is very little public knowledge on this subject so we are really pleased that this campaign has started a conversation in Bristol about how we can co-exist without threatening the future of night-time businesses in the city.”

The #savethekla campaign certainly has sparked a conversation, with artists from Eats Everything to Artwork offering their support and more than 12,300 people signing an online petition.

We cannot let this happen to another legendary venue in this lovely city we live in!!!

— TwEats Everything® (@eats_everything) 6 November 2017


McCarthy says: “I’m optimistic about the future of Thekla and other venues. The mayor is determined to make sure its future is safe, and indeed that Bristol’s diverse and vibrant live music continues; not only survives, but thrives.”

It seems that with widespread public support the future for Thekla is relatively secure. However, with better regulation and greater awareness about the threats to night-time culture, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about venues like Thekla in the first place.

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