In December, the Baltic Triangle-based club space went public on its ongoing battle with residential developers moving into the area. With Liverpool City Council proposing the club reduces its operation to accommodate the development, the successful venue’s future has been forcibly drawn into the spotlight. One of the venue owners, Ioan Roberts, speaks up about the frustrations of working creatively under the shadow of gentrification.
It seems like any other day in the offices of 24 KITCHEN STREET. Placed one floor above the music venue and club-orientated space, out of sight of the substantial mirror ball that oversees the cobbled dancefloor, the usual hive of activity is underway.
While January is often a slowly awakening month for event goers, there’s no New Year hibernation for promoters and club owners. The headspace is already well into spring and summer and, at times, as far as autumn and winter. New shows are being negotiated, booked, announced and their social media and print promotion coordinated. It’s the kind of environment you’d expect from a popular music venue now into its seventh year in existence. But even with thoughts looking ahead to warmer months, there’s no escaping the early stages of the year; breath mists in the air inside the former warehouse space as Ioan Roberts, the venue’s co-owner and manager, sits down to discuss the ongoing campaign to keep the venue open.
Today’s visibly fluid operation only tells one half of the story. In December, the venue went public regarding its three-year battle with developers building residential flats on a neighbouring car park on Blundell Street. If you’ve visited the venue or Baltic Triangle recently, you’ll have been able to document the development’s rapid growth. It’s not hard to notice. The nakedly clad block of flats invasively looks down on the neighbouring Kitchen Street.
The new development will fundamentally change how 24 Kitchen Street operates. Consequently, the venue’s continued existence is now threated the point of near closure if adequate support isn’t granted by Liverpool City Council. This is the view of Roberts who’s been at the heart of its operation since opening in 2013.
The news about Kitchen Street’s battle went public for the second time on 3rd December. Initially the venue had been vocal about the proposed planning permission for the neighbouring development back in 2016. Yet, even with continuing disagreements regarding acceptable noise levels during events, planning was still granted and building work began. Away from public view, three further years of acoustic surveys have been undertaken both by the venue and the developer. “The developer conducted a noise report at the end of 2018, October/November. They called us for a meeting and Environmental Health from the council attended it,” Roberts informs us when asked about the ongoing arguments around noise pollution. “They basically outlined that they’d done extensive measurements over a range of events with us. And demonstrated through their recording, measurements and work that we were seven decibels too loud for the level of sound proofing they’d proposed.” The venue has contested these findings through their own assessments.
“Seven decibels doesn’t sound like much, but it is in terms of a reduction,” Roberts underlines, adding that this assessment put forward by the developers is now close to being accepted by the City Council. Roberts continues: “They were saying that they’d specced their development out adequately, but they anticipated we do the rest. They didn’t give us any financial incentive to do the rest, they just said we had to reduce [our levels].” However, even before an agreement had been reached to reduce their noise output by seven decibels, windows had already been installed around much of the building while talks were still taking place. “During the time we’ve been arguing about levels with the developers and the council, the developers have just continued to build, assuming we’d reduce. They’ve treated the planning process with disregard, and that’s what we’re trying to argue.”
Writing in Bido Lito! shortly before the venue went public in December, Liverpool City Region Music Board Member Matt Flynn observed: “Effectively, the Kitchen Street debate concerns the very technical evaluation of acceptable existing noise levels. Each party’s respective acoustic experts have proposed using noise readings from different days, times and locations to establish the baseline decibel level that is audible in existing domestic properties that surround the venue. This means the Environmental Health department have had to mediate between Kitchen Street and developers Brickland and contractors ISG to establish the specification of the glazing and soundproofing the developers need to install in each of their 200 new flats.
“Discharging the condition means the council is satisfied the developers have designed and constructed their property to agreed specifications, including required levels of sound insulation.”
According to Roberts, the debate had been muddied somewhat by inconsistent readings taken on behalf of the developer and council. During the venue’s participation in the Baltic Weekender festival this summer, an outdoor stage, covered by Temporary Event Notice, caused noise complaints from nearby residential houses. When following up the complaint on an operational night for the club, no irregular noise levels were detected within the houses due to events returning back inside the club – underscoring the street party complaints as an irregular occurrence and not in line with the venue’s consistent programming. To further follow up the complaint, the council took a short, one-off, 15-minute reading in the club, which, Roberts says, was the only reading the council took inside the club during the process. “The Council then said that they’d been through the cumulative information of both sides and are satisfied that everything will be fine. However five out of six of the events sampled by the developer’s consultants, and all of those sampled by Kitchen Street’s would likely lead to noise complaints” Roberts says. “Following that we were told we had to reduce noise levels as we’d be too loud for the windows the council had given permission to install.” This decision by the council then initiated the public response from Kitchen Street.
“As has happened with venues up and down the country, noise complaints get venues shut down,” states the public appeal released by Kitchen Street back in December. The assessment put forward by Kitchen Street underscores the inhospitable climate venues are up against, but more tellingly, UK-wide councils’ openness to build for profit developments that bring the barrage of planning disagreements. The noise complaints inevitably follow. “The attitude is, if you’re a creative business you can just get moved away, [the council] don’t value us,” Roberts adds, a sentiment echoed in statistics that reveal the UK has lost 35 per cent of its music venues throughout the last decade. “The developers on Blundell Street believe installing more robust soundproofing threatens their bottom line and therefore is not profitable.” Roberts adds that the council’s recommendation was to therefore cover the louder, bass-driven events with Temporary Events Notices (TENs) – a maximum of 12 can be applied for throughout the year. “That’s 80 per cent of our events,” Roberts outlines. “Why should we start reducing what we do, which is legal, to save the developers money when they should be the ones spending the money?”
Roberts’ argument of obligation comes into greater light since the council signed up to the Agent of Change principle in September 2019. The AoC principle, part of the National Planning Policy Framework, states that: “Planning policies and decisions should ensure that new development can be integrated effectively with existing businesses and community facilities. Existing businesses and facilities should not have unreasonable restrictions placed on them as a result of development permitted after they were established.”
A face value reading of the principle’s definition would underscore the Blundell Street development as the Agent of Change, 24 Kitchen Street as the existing business that “should not have unreasonable restrictions placed on them as a result of development permitted after they were established”. But the decision to grant the development permission to install windows that would require a reduction in 24 Kitchen Street’s operation suggests the council’s commitment to AoC is hollow. “This whole time they’ve been aware what blocks of flats can do to creative businesses,” Roberts says. “It’s in the area of planning policy where care must be taken to ensure there isn’t a predominance of one and two bedroom flats in what’s seen as a creative district.”
Another workaround for the venue would be agreeing to a deed of easement, essentially an agreement where new tenants in the development acknowledge the presence of the venue and its regular operation upon moving in. However, in moving the goal posts away from AoC – thus justifying the development and the uncomfortable proximity it’s been built to a music venue regularly operating four nights per week – does not set the encompassing precedent the council appear to be endorsing with their vocal backing of AoC. A deed of easement is a potential solution, but it is only effective via a case-by-case basis. Adhering to AoC properly would build a framework that sees all new developments held to the same level of scrutiny. The apparent weakness in AoC, however, is that it is not statutory law, and viewed more as planning guidance. Speaking in November, Paul Farrell, head of Environmental Health at Liverpool City Council, regarded AoC as “not perfect, but a step in the direction”. However, the apparent progression is contended by Roberts. “This isn’t new,” he says. “They can’t pretend they didn’t know [the effect the development would have on us] when building started in 2016. The council just don’t value creative businesses. They think we can just move to another area. We have the Music Board, who’ve supported us, but what’s the point in having it if the Council don’t listen to it?”
The Liverpool City Region Music Board, formed in January 2019, outlines that one of its priorities is “safeguarding and protecting music venues”. During the debates between developers and Kitchen Street, the Music Board has supported the venue’s stance, however, it remains to be seen whether its conservatively coordinated vocal pressure holds any sway of the council. Roberts believes the council’s adoption of the Music Board’s is merely posturing and serves only to present the illusion that they, firstly, celebrate music-based culture in the city beyond Mathew Street and, secondly, is seen to be actively engaging in the protection of music venues – notably after high-profile closures in the last decade such as The Kazimier. While the Music Board may not hold the power over the council’s decision making, its existence and worth hinges on its ability to ensure the Kitchen Street situation remains on the council agenda and is lobbied and campaigned for in the public domain. Apathy surrounding the public facing campaign to save the venue will ultimately lead to its demise.
Some lateral arguments would suggest creative businesses remain progressive by contorting and adapting to new landscapes and environments – always looking to remain one step ahead of encroaching developments that outline an area as ‘desirable’ (read: cool, creative, probably some paid for graffiti). Roberts colourfully calls this out. “Thinking differently, finding new spaces, that’s complete bollocks. You can do five warehouse parties and you’re shut down. I push against that. Like an enterprise, you need stability. You need to be able to plan into the future.” Roberts is passionate about the need to build from the ground up and enhance a public reputation. “To build a strong cultural programme, you need to have a base, the booking agents of artists need to know who you are. The industry needs to know who you are. You can’t book in a revered artist for a warehouse show that you don’t have a licence for. You’ve got to have a proper venue that people know about.”
The cultural programme Roberts mentions is one of Liverpool City Council’s most consistent marketing tools for tourism. Yet, the venue deems its stance on new developments in creative areas as incongruous with its much-touted UNESCO City Of Music badge. The venue says it’s “ironic that the council is failing to protect grassroots and independent music in the city”.
In allowing the development to continue installing windows under an assumption the seven decibel reduction will be met, 24 Kitchen Street will be unable to operate in the capacity that has seen it forge a reputation as one the leading electronic music focused venues in the city. One capable of competing with the programming of fellow leading venues in the North, such as Soup Kitchen in Manchester and Wire in Leeds.
The debate is now in the hands of the council. It remains in the power of the Music Board to ensure Kitchen Street doesn’t fall of the agenda or quietly swept aside. Without a reassessment of the development’s sound proofing procedures, which currently stands to all but end the venue’s late night programming, the venue will be stripped of its draw and cease to exist as a destination for the world’s best DJs, producers and bands. “I don’t want to operate with constant battles over noise complaints,” Roberts replies, knowing the proximity of the flats and level of soundproofing installed is likely to draw complaints, adding “the work to fix the building would cost around £200,000, but they’re arguing it’s not profitable to do this.
“If [Environmental Health and the council] don’t intervene before September, I know from examples around the country that we’ll eventually lose, and it will cost us a fortune.” So far the venue has spent upwards of £14,000 in acoustic consultants. “Operating in the way they’ve suggested, with TENs and reduced noise output, when we have a band or DJ, we’ll have to tell them about the limitations. It will restrict the scope of what they can do. That will put artists off. They will just say, ‘That’s not good enough’. When it gets to that point, I’d have to question whether I’d want to be doing this.”
When looking ahead at the warmer months that ultimately hold the fate of the venue, perhaps Roberts’ closing sentiment will bluntly show the council the strained health so many of its prized cultural attractions are enduring. “If the council don’t change their approach, I’m not sure I’d bother trying to do this again here in Liverpool. You’d spend three or four years doing the building work, getting it set up, to then have two years of running a business properly, developing it, only for the same thing to happen. What would be the point?”