CMU Trends

Trends: Agent of change – the story so far

By | Published on Friday 19 January 2018

Live Music

The UK government has announced that it will add the so called ‘agent of change’ principle into the framework which local authorities must follow when considering planning applications by property developers.

The move follows an increasingly vocal campaign in recent years by the music community that sought to reduce the potential impact of new residential property developments on existing music venues, which culminated in a change to the law being proposed by a back bench MP in Parliament earlier this month.

As the government formally gets on board with ‘agent of change’, CMU Trends reviews what it’s all about and how we got to this point.

It’s no secret that in the 2000s, as the recorded music industry went through a decade of steep decline, the live music sector boomed.

In the main, the live music business remains both healthy and lucrative today. But at the same time it’s a top heavy sector, meaning that while major big bucks are made by premiere league acts touring the biggest venues, at the grassroots it remains challenging for artists, venues and promoters to profit from their live shows.

For artists, gigging at the outset of their career is as much about fanbase building as anything else. While live may well become an artist’s single biggest revenue stream down the line, when playing small pub-based venues they may well struggle to even break even, certainly once they start playing beyond their home town. But it’s vital for new artists to play those grassroots gigs, in order to hone their sound, identity and performance, and to build the fanbase that will drive the business side of their music in the future.

To that end new artists rely on the grassroots gigging circuit to get their individual artist businesses off the ground. Which means they rely on the venues and promoters which operate that circuit. However, they too face many challenges in ensuring that they have commercially viable businesses. Which isn’t to say it can’t be done, but profit margins are usually pretty tight, which means any potential hurdles along the way can make those grass roots gigging operations unviable commercially.

Pretty much everyone in the music community agrees that the grassroots gigging circuit plays a crucial role in helping develop future music talent. Which means everyone in the music industry should be focused on ensuring there are as few hurdles as possible in the way of those people running the grass roots venues and shows. And there are various hurdles causing issues today.

Rising rents and business rates for venue owners is a key one. Rising ticket prices at the top end of the live market meaning fans may have less money to spend on grassroots shows is possibly another. Many music fans have had less disposable income in the last decade and, at the same time, a greater range of cheaper home entertainment options to choose from. Anecdotal research suggests that young people today are possibly drinking less than young people in the recent past, and at grassroots gigs the bar is usually the single biggest revenue generator.

Most of these issues are complicated to address with no one simple solution. Though there is one other potential hurdle for grassroots venues that isn’t all that complicated to address, because there is a relatively simple solution, and that is where agent of change comes in.

Agent of change seeks to address one particular hurdle some grassroots venues have had to cross in the past. The issue is when new neighbours move in next door and then subsequently complain to the local council about noise generated by the venue.

Even though the venue was there first, and the new neighbours chose to move in to a property right alongside, those complaints can result in the venue’s licence terms being changed by their local authority. Permissible noise levels may be reduced. Opening hours may be cut back. The installation of sound proofing may be ordered. And for venues already operating on incredibly tight profit margins, any one of those demands can be enough to put them out of business.

This turn of events is all the more galling if – as can happen – the existence of the affected music venue helped turn round what was previously a run down part of a town or a city. Grassroots artists and cultural entrepreneurs tend to be attracted to such places because they are cheap. If those artists and entrepreneurs are successful they then create a vibe that brings lots of new people to that place, to socialise, work and, ultimately live.

At this point a property developer might sensibly recognise an opportunity. Property in that run down part of town is probably still relatively cheap, but if the new buzz the cultural group has created can be sustained, more people will want to live there and the value of that property will shoot up. So said sensible developer converts run down buildings into plush new flats, sells them off and then moves on. But then the people who move into those plush new flats, while enjoying living in a culturally vibrant part of town, don’t like all the noise. And so the problems begin.

The agent of change principle is a relatively simple idea to stop that from happening. It says that if a property developer sees an opportunity like the one just described, and puts a new residential building next to or near by an existing music venue, it is the developer’s responsibility to assess and identify any future noise issues, and to do whatever is necessary to address said issues, most likely in the way they design the new build. The property developer must also cover any costs involved in ensuring there are no future problems.

Agent of change is such a simple idea, that many people assume that it is the default rule anyway. Surely if someone puts a new residential building next to an existing music venue, potential future noise issues should be the problem and the responsibility of the new arrivals, not the existing business that has been happily and successfully staging gigs and entertaining gig-goers all this time?

But it is not the default rule. In London, the spotlight was put on this issue in 2010 when club venue Ministry Of Sound expressed concerns about a big new residential property development that was set to be built next to its long-established base. The clubbing business foresaw potential future issues once a load of new neighbours had moved in to fancy new properties next door. And it knew that the fact it was there first would not stop any future noise complaints from causing licensing problems.

Ministry bosses were all the more concerned because the company behind that new property development seemed totally unconcerned about future noise problems. It didn’t help that the CEO of said property firm was rumoured to have declared, when asked about the potential of future noise issues between Ministry and the people set to buy his new apartments, “nightclubs come and go”.

Ministry’s local authority, Southwark Council, actually backed the clubbing business over its concerns with the new property development, though then London mayor Boris Johnson subsequently intervened. However, after several years, Ministry reached a deal with the property developer in which the latter agreed to alter the design of its new building so to mitigate future noise problems.

So, success for Ministry. But many felt that those commitments by the property developer should have been a given, and shouldn’t have required the club to fight so hard. Indeed, some smaller venues wouldn’t have had the resources to fight the legal and PR battles required to secure that victory.

Introducing agent of change into planning law would mean that venues wouldn’t have to mount legal and PR battles whenever faced with new residential property developments next door. The idea – and the name agent of change – actually originates in Australia, but has become a talking point in the UK in the last few years.

In 2015, Great Escape founder Martin Elbourne discussed the principle at the showcase festival. He was speaking at a CMU Insights session at TGE in which various music industry people discussed what the then new UK government could do to tangibly help the music community. Introducing agent of change would be a simple but significant move to support the all-important grassroots music sector, he reckoned.

As noted, most people in the music industry agree that grassroots venues play a crucial role in developing new talent and so any measures to make the operation of those venues more viable should be embraced. For some in the political community that is sufficient justification for making agent of change law.

Though – given property developers won’t like being handed new responsibilities and costs and given the property sector is very influential – other arguments for agent of change are required to get more widespread political support.

Elbourne, who also co-founded the Music Cities conference series, pointed out that the music community needed to start talking up more the tangible value the so called ‘nighttime economy’ delivers for so many towns and cities. Also document and showcase how cultural businesses frequently play a key role in kickstarting the revival of run down places, as discussed above.

Elbourne was not alone in recognising how these various arguments could be used to win political support for agent of change. And to that end, various UK music industry trade bodies like UK Music and the Musicians’ Union, not to mention the relatively young Music Venue Trust, began campaigning on this issue, seeking to persuade government to amend planning rules so to include agent of change.

2017 saw a number of steps forward, with the principle discussed in Parliament, and government indicating that it was considering introducing measures of this kind in some way into planning rules, and that work was now underway to investigate quite what that might mean. Then in November, London mayor Sadiq Khan confirmed he would include agent of change in his new London Plan.

Seeking to capitalise on this momentum, late last year Labour MP John Spellar announced that he planned to propose new legislation in Parliament that would formally put agent of change into planning law. He introduced those proposals via a bill presented under the so called ‘ten minute rule’ earlier this month.

At the time he said: “I accept that there is a variety of reasons for the decline in venues [in recent years], but many relate to changes in the neighbourhood, increasingly when redundant commercial or industrial premises are converted to residential, or are knocked down and rebuilt, or as empty sites are developed”.

He went on: “Of course, much of that is very welcome. It is part of the regeneration of our inner cities, restoring their historic vibrancy and creating much-needed homes. However, it can sometimes lead to the loss of what makes parts of those areas attractive in the first place, especially to younger residents”.

On his specific legislative proposals, he added: “My short bill is a modest and focused measure that would adopt the principle of agent of change into planning law. That basically means that when buildings are converted to residential use or a new development is put up, the onus is on the developer – not the venue – to ensure that the new dwellings are protected from factors, particularly noise, that could be held to affect their general amenity and enjoyment”.

Legislation proposed by back-bench MPs in the UK parliament rarely becomes law. Either because the government uses its (usual) majority in the House Of Commons to ultimately block the proposals, or simply because most parliamentary time is given to government legislation, so time runs out for other bills.

However, it was hoped that Spellar’s proposals might persuade the government to make good on its past somewhat vague commitments and actually make agent of change a formal part of the planning permission process. There was widespread cross-party support for Spellar’s plan and – even though, as noted, property developers won’t like the new obligations – no one spoke up publicly in opposition. Likely because most recognise that agent of change is – really – simple common sense.

The music industry’s lobbyists were also possibly hoping that the current UK government was more likely than most to be persuaded in this way. With no actual majority in the House Of Commons and with the massive distraction that is the Brexit negotiations, this is a government that is struggling to get much done. Here was a simple proposal that Spellar had proven would be uncontroversial and popular.

And so it came to pass. Yesterday the Ministry Of Housing, Communities & Local Government stated: “Housing developers building new homes near music venues should be responsible for addressing noise issues in a move to protect both music venues and their neighbours”. To that end, it added, “The National Planning Policy Framework, which local authorities are legally bound to comply with, will now be clarified to include detailed reference to the ‘agent of change’ principle, and will be consulted on in spring”.

Housing Secretary Sajid Javid then said: “Music venues play a vital role in our communities, bringing people together and contributing to the local economy and supporting the country’s grass roots music culture. I have always thought it unfair that the burden is on long-standing music venues to solve noise issues when property developers choose to build nearby”.

Noting commitments already made by the government in this domain last year, he continued: “That’s why I consulted on this in February last year as part of the housing white paper. I am pleased to finally have an opportunity to right this wrong and also give more peace of mind to new residents moving into local properties”.

Needless to say, this announcement was welcomed by Spellar and the music community. The former confirmed that he would now put his bill on hold while Javid’s department goes about adding agent of change into the National Planning Policy Framework.

Meanwhile UK Music boss Michael Dugher said: “This is a seismic victory for all those who fought so hard to safeguard the future of music venues across the UK – from grassroots community activists to Britain’s global music stars who have spent years calling for agent of change and recently supported the Spellar Bill”.

“We are delighted the government has thrown its support behind our agent of change plan and is strengthening the rules to protect grassroots music venues. It’s a tremendous boost for the live music industry”.

Dave Webster, the Musicians’ Union’s National Organiser For Live Performance, then added: “This is welcome news and we are pleased that the government has listened to the music industry. The pledge to strengthen the National Planning Policy Framework will give Musicians’ Union members places to play and audiences to support them, and give venues the protection they so desperately need”.

And finally, the Music Venue Trust stated: “Following the huge support for John Spellar MP’s private members bill, Music Venue Trust warmly welcomes this move by the government to adopt agent of change. Too many of our music venues have been lost to poor developments that haven’t recognised the cultural importance of grassroots music venues”.

Of course, while Javid has now made a formal commitment to introduce agent of change, the devil is always in the detail. The music community needs to keep a close eye on how the principle is actually introduced, to ensure it isn’t watered down under any possible pressure from the property sector.

Which is something MVT acknowledges. “We look forward to working with the government to ensure that these new measures provide robust protection, which presents clear guidelines for developers and local authorities”.

So, a big step forward, but likely more debate to come.