In March 2015, an amendment to the law altered the way that betting shops, bookies and pawnshops were classified by the planning system. From 23 March of that year, such premises were reclassified from A2 to Sui Generis.
To those unfamiliar with the minutiae of the General Permitted Development Order, A2 includes finance and professional services, including finance and banking, building societies and estate agents. Betting shops inclusion in this use class came out of the 2005 Gambling Act, a heavily lobbied-for set of legislation which regulated the sector.
When a building is classed as A2, permitted development rights mean it could change to A1 (shops), A3 (food and drink), A4 (pubs) and A5 (hot food / takeaway). This doesn’t mean that betting shops became pubs – but it did mean they were able to occupy high streets units (i.e. places that used to be A1, A3, A4 or A5) without planning permission.
Furthermore, as A2, betting shops, bookies and pawnshops were able to argue successfully that their businesses served a banking and financial role in our towns or cities. Such businesses were thus given precedence on our high streets, and there was no tool to reject a change of use from a disused cafe, for example. After all, we all need banks and building societies.
A decade on, we see the result of such a use change. Merton and Newham councils in London, for example, have faced significant challenge and litigation from the gambling lobby. And across the country local authorities have had to allocate millions of pounds to challenging this use – often by using Article 4 Directions, in which councils can override permitted development rights by appealing directly to the Secretary of State.
Thankfully, now the use has been changed to Sui Generis, meaning "in a class by itself". This class does not permit a change of use: you can no longer simply switch a building A3 (disused cafe) to A2 (new betting shop).
As a result, if one wants to open a bookies now, the application will be treated on its own merits: there’s no longer a clause that allows them to occupy a site without planning consent. All this has made them less probable to spring up on high streets where there are already two or three in place.
So, why does this matter for music venues and nightclubs? Such venues are classed in a complex way. More often than not, they're D2, which is "Assembly and Leisure". Sometimes, they’re A4, pubs. And some are also classed as sui generis – for example, if a cafe is bolted on. This means that where they can be, and how they are classed by Britain’s planning sector, is treated on a case-by-case basis.
But what works now with betting shops does not work for music venues: I propose that we take a lesson from the gambling lobby and do what they managed to do in reverse. We should create a use class for music venues, or at least create more specific planning guidelines for them, to protect and promote their use and value.
By doing this, we can prohibit a change in use. That would mean that, once a venue, it can always be a venue. At least as long as business allows: if a venue closes due to bankruptcy that is one thing. But many close due to change of use, not business reasons. This would address that.
When local and regional authorities map cities and town centres, a number of uses are drawn up and allocated space, according to what is deemed best for the local community. It is top down and not specific, but does prioritise some uses over others. For example, one plot of land may be classified as residential (A1); the plot across the street finance (A2). And over there is a Church (D2), and next to it a café or restaurant (A3).
But through this process, more often than not unintentionally, we deprioritise certain uses because they are more difficult, in planning terms, to administer. This is the challenge facing music venues: they are often left off the map, even though A4 or D2 is prioritised in the part of the National Planning Policy Framework covering town and city centres.
What this does is over-emphasise day-time use, leaving night time use less allocated or thought through. As a result, we are left with reactive licensing conditions to “plan” the night – because it’s trickier than other uses more synonymous with daytime (for example, retail).
This lack of a more specific use class for music venues and nightclubs means that their specific characteristics – including the loading in and out, entry and exit of people flow and other matters – are not widely understood and often clash with the local planning framework as it currently stands.
That framework often creates further challenges and conflicts with other uses, such as residential. And no matter how forward thinking a planning consent is, if noise becomes an issue, the problem reverts to a licensing officer, who is rightly not concerned with what use class a building is.
More defined, structured guidance is what is required to mitigate these potential challenges and support all our cities and town centres: it would give music venues and nightclubs a more defined place, in all our places. This is not happening at present, as in London, for example, we are still losing venues, nightclubs and even pubs, due to planning issues.
While we cannot change what has already been planned, across the country, a number of large scale developments are being planned right now. At the same time, local authorities are revisiting their long term visions, from Shoreditch to Leeds city centre. Here we have an opportunity to safeguard our music venues, nightclubs and entertainment premises for the future, while respecting the rights of those to sleep.
And so, I propose we identify and define a specific use for such venues, at least in terms of guidance. I propose a use-class that is less blunt, and focuses on the benefits of music venues and nightclubs, rather than attempting to shoehorn them into a class that may not suit them.
The new categorisation could blend D2, A4 and sui generis, and include all "gatherings of individuals to hear amplified music in a licensed (or teetotal) premises", or something to that effect. If the gambling sector can successfully lobby to be defined as finance, music venues can lobby to be better designated in – and so supported by – planning law.
If we value our town centres, our development areas and our night-time economy, we need to better understand how they respond to, impact and are influenced by our planning law. In the UK, we have very few planning guidelines to govern and support what happens when the sun goes down. Let’s start by copying those clever betting shop lobbyists. Let’s provide a use class for music venues.