Photography: Mathew Flynn

AGENT OF CHANGE: Panel Discussion

Friday Vision @ District 28/11/19

As 24 Kitchen Street launches a crowd funder to save itself from aggressive development, Mat Flynn (Lecturer in Music Industry at University Of Liverpool and member of the Liverpool City Region Music Board) argues that Liverpool City Council must follow the Agent Of Change principle it has already adopted…

There’s around 70 people from across Liverpool’s music sector here in attendance this evening. Panellist CLARA CULLEN, from national charitable organisation the Music Venues Trust (MVT), notes this in her opening comment: “On a cold, wet Thursday night, this is a very encouraging turnout for a discussion about an obscure piece of statutory guidance from paragraph 182 of the National Planning Framework…”

We’re here to discuss Liverpool City Council’s adoption of the Agent of Change principle. The little known AoC principle, part of the National Planning 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.”

The remaining representatives on the panel illustrate why a planning regulation has become so significant to the future of the cultural fabric of the Baltic area and potentially the wider city region in Liverpool. Organised and chaired by BECCA FRANKLAND from Friday Vision, the four-person panel is completed by two representatives from the city council: KEVIN MACMANUS – UNESCO City of Music officer and PAUL FARRELL – Head of Environmental Health. IOAN ROBERTS, co-owner and manager of 24 Kitchen Street, which has operated in the Baltic since 2013, completes the panel. As a venue under threat from the current construction of a nine storey apartment block, 24 Kitchen Street remains hopeful of being the first beneficiary of Liverpool City Council’s progressive approach to safeguarding the city’s contemporary music offer, after recently voting to adopt AoC as a principle for directing future planning policy in September 2019.

Under AoC, any lay reader of the guidance would reasonably assume it would be the responsibility of the developer of any new property to sound proof their construction so the noise generated from the already established music venue did not disturb incoming residents. Equally, the guidance would side with existing residents and established businesses if a new music venue where to open in the area.

In Kitchen Street’s case, what is clear is that the developers of the Blundell Street Project are the agents of change. However, as the evening’s debate unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent, to quote Paul Farrell, that AoC “Is not perfect, but a step in the direction.” The ambiguity created by AoC is simply because it is planning guidance – open to each individual local authority to adopt as policy into their local planning frameworks, as opposed to a definitive national legal statute. As Farrell also states, it places those that work within local planning and enforcement departments in a challenging position where “all environmental health can do is look at the information and make a judgement. It’s not exact science.”

AGENT OF CHANGE – What Does It Mean? Image 2

In outlining the complexities of agreeing the information on which judgements are based, Ioan Roberts highlights the three years and thousands of pounds Kitchen Street has spent so far in providing information to the council’s planning department to contest the information presented by the far better financially and legal resourced developers.

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.

While the consultations between the planning department, the venue and developers are ongoing, as anyone who has visited the Baltic recently will attest, the development has continued apace and is now almost complete with, much of, the glazing and soundproofing already fitted. Based on the recommendation of the Environmental Health’s acoustic team, within the coming weeks the judgement the city’s planning officials have to make is whether to discharge the condition on the new development. Discharging the condition means the city council is satisfied the developers have designed and constructed their property to agreed specifications, including required levels of sound insulation. Once signed off, effectively the planning guidance afforded by AoC ceases to be relevant and any future dispute over acceptable noise levels reverts to regulations under existing noise pollution laws that are enforced by the same Environmental Health department. Therefore, if just one of 200 plus incoming residents to the new development were to complain about the volume of the music emanating from the venue, Environmental Health are legally obligated to investigate such a complaint like any other across the city.

What remains unclear is, in the event of a resident’s noise complaint being upheld, where the liability to remedy the situation lies? Once a condition is discharged, the city council has effectively sanctioned the building erected by the developers. Yet AoC guidance means, provided that Kitchen Street has not changed its established times and types of business, that it should not have to adapt its business operation or premises to accommodate its new neighbours.

As it stands, disagreement remains between the venue and developers as to what the current licensed decibel level allowed from Kitchen Street should be. This further lack of clarity means, despite AoC, 24 Kitchen Street remains in a vulnerable and precarious situation.

“Why is it always us who have to change?” Ioan Roberts, Kitchen Street

There remains time and opportunity to resolve the situation by finding agreement on the appropriate level of sound insulation before the condition on the new flats is discharged, and/or by putting in place a Deed of Easement, essentially an agreement signed by residents prior to moving into a residence near a music venue. The Liverpool City Region Music Board has the adoption and implementation of AoC across all the city regions as a strategic priority, and will continue to support any efforts to achieve one or both of the above resolutions for Kitchen Street. Given the positive progress made by Liverpool City Council in our UNESCO City of Music, it would be a failure on behalf of all involved if Agent of Change arrived too late to ensure the survival and future prosperity of one of the city’s most prized music venues and creative spaces.

From a wider perspective, the implementation of Agent of Change is significant because it implores all the vested interests in a situation such as Kitchen Street’s to find a compromise that enables people to move into and enjoy living in an area of the city alongside the creative businesses and venues that, in the Baltic’s case over the previous decade, have rejuvenated the areas cultural and economic fortunes and have made it the vibrant and desirable place to live in.

Adopting the Agent of Change principle can only be a positive step for Liverpool and the wider region, as it further acknowledges the value of the region’s cultural fabric in enhancing its commercial and corporate offer. However, in future situations, ideally action will be required far earlier in the planning process, with noise levels and the related building specifications agreed prior to the laying of foundations for any new development. Because, in the longer-term, having a definitive planning policy that adheres to AoC means venue owners such as Ioan, and others like him across the region, will no longer have to ask the question he concluded with at the panel: “Why is it always us who have to change?” In future, the answer to the region’s already existing music venues must be “you don’t.”

Mathew Flynn, Liverpool City Region Music Board Member

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