The UK planning system finally recognises the ‘Agent of Change’ principle. So now what?

This article first appeared in CityMetric

In August 2018, the UK Parliament passed an amendment to the National Planning & Policy Framework (NPPF), including a few sentences collectively referred to as the ‘Agent of Change’ Principle. Now, in England, any new development – residential, commercial or otherwise –planned for a site next to a noise-making premises would need to mitigate any potential risk to the existing premises, before receiving planning permission.

The new rule applies not just for music venues and nightclubs on high streets next to new developments; but also light industrial, factories and ‘back-of-house’ creators, such as art studios, instrument makers and textile manufacturers. It also defends existing residential developments: if a music venue wished to open in a quiet neighbourhood, it would need to demonstrate soundproofing, quiet dispersal and other requirements to get planning permission.

This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not a panacea, because there isn’t one. Local plans need to be rewritten and this rule must be respected in local decisions. There will be missteps – but the introduction of Agent of Change is a start to creating a more sustainable, healthy and supportive music and creative ecosystem in London and across England.

But we need to do more. So, what’s next on the list?

Here’s a few ideas that I feel are worth pursuing, so we can make the UK the world’s best place for musicians, creatives and all of us who benefit from, or interact with, their creative output.

1. Ratify Agent of Change in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

This is a simple request, but one which requires local change in each country. Both Scotland and Wales have brought bills to their parliament to introduce this in their planning systems. It would be beneficial for the entire country, not just England, to make Agent of Change law.

2. Re-engage a debate about licensing

This is not specifically a British problem – mixing alcohol, live music and regulation, primarily at night, causes headaches everywhere. From Pittsburgh to Tbilisi, Tokyo to Bogota, striking a balance in regulating the night time economy is a challenge that divides communities.

But the current system here in the UK certainly doesn’t work. Local engagement in licensing hearings is low, and the people who chair and run these committees are often not the same people experiencing, and benefitting from, the activities they are regulating. The average age of a UK Councillor is over 60 (although this is gradually changing); and reactionary decisions create a mistrust in civic society: look at the London Borough of Hackney, for example.

In addition, since last year’s thorough licensing review by the House of Lords, which outlined the failures in the interpretation of the 2003 Licensing Act, nothing’s been done. A reduction in local authority staff and an increase in workload has compounded this problem: complicated, life-altering decisions are being made by those who lack the experience to do so.

The current failing regime is even putting further unnecessary stress on our health and social care system. Folkestone’s licensing framework, for example, recently introduced changes to limit evening and night time economy uses: Kent Online referred to the changes as a “final nail in the city’s coffin”, because it will further lead to the city attracting pensioners, rather than the young workers needed to support social care. This is not inevitable: further up the coast, Margate, is doing the opposite.

Across England, there have been a number of successful schemes promoting the benefits of the Night Time Economy. London has a Night Czar, Manchester a Night Mayor and Plymouth a Night Time Manager. More cities have joined the Purple Flag accreditation scheme for places that offer a good night out.

But such progress is still not reflected in policy. Licensing decisions are still based on negatives. And when locals can object to a business before its doors even open, that objection will be based on what it represents, rather than what it is.

So: let’s talk more about licensing.

3. Prioritise Our Small Towns and Cities More

I’m proud of being a small cog in the big machine that has worked to improve the music policy ecosystem in London. While we’ve had successes, there’s much work to do there.

But I feel now’s the time to prioritise the music infrastructure in our small towns and cities – and recognise that, to incubate talent, we need to start at all sources. Many small towns and cities, from Peterborough to Wells, Oban to Fishguard, have seen decreases in their music infrastructure since 2010. Only a few local music organisations remain – the rest were victims of austerity – and venues in which to play are closing, with new artists now relying on their parents, or infrequent night buses, to take advantage of performance opportunities.

This creates a talent development framework that relies more on uploading covers to YouTube than on engaging with one’s peers. Mix that with a reduction in music education provision, less budget for music services and the closure of youth clubs, and you get a perfect storm in which, in essence, we forget about the talent in our small towns and cities.

This must change. We need a national music towns strategy to audit existing infrastructure, ensure it is protected through the planning and licensing system as best as possible, and provide the tool for local authorities to better promote venues. We need a mechanism to turn vacant buildings over to creatives, on peppercorn rent, as practice facilities. We need all BIDs and LEPs to develop music policies and treat music as an industry, like any other. All this is possible.

We have much work to do in the UK. Here’s hoping next year, we have more to celebrate to ensure we’re continually creating the most music friendly country on the planet.