Agent of Change - A neighbourly policy for the mixed-use 24/7 city

Agent of Change - A neighbourly policy for the mixed-use 24/7 city

By Andrea Forsberg

Imagine, you just moved into a newly built apartment (lucky you!). However, you soon discover that a nightclub next door is creating a lot of noise, too much, actually, to get a good night’s sleep. So, who’s at fault? The nightclub for causing a disturbance in a residential neighbourhood? Or you, for not doing your research? 

A new policy proposed by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, states it is the developer’s fault. Policy D12, Agent of Change (AoC), places the responsibility of mitigating nuisance on the entity causing a change in the area (here, the new development).(1) Under the new policy, the developer must make efforts to either soundproof its building, the nightclub, or both, and design the building in a way that ensures co-existence.

Before this policy was proposed, the onus was on the nuisance-maker to limit their loud noises and mitigation measures by the new development was only recommended. This often resulted in venues being forced to completely shut down or move  due to complaints from newly-arrived residential neighbours, and regardless of how long the venues had been in that location.

The Agent of Change policy signals a significant change in planning policy. Though regulations have been in place for a long time requiring consideration for existing uses and encouraging new development to find mitigations through design or otherwise, it is no longer optional. Policy D12 places responsibility explicitly on the entity causing change (most often a new development), and is clear and direct about responsibility, the burden of cost, and actions that are now compulsory.  

Industry, rail infrastructure and new housing in Hackney.JPG

Nightclubs aren’t the only institutions that  this policy will impact. The Agent of Change policy covers all kinds of noise-making activities, like drinking and entertainment venues, industrial uses, rail infrastructure, places of worship, sports facilities, and even schools. The policy also places responsibility back on these uses whenever necessary. So, if the nightclub changes their sound equipment it is their responsibility to mitigate the noise, as they are the agent of change in this instance.  

It all sounds logical.

Ensuring that buildings are built to context seems like something developers would already be doing by themselves, but too often that does not happen. The AoC is a policy that hopes to celebrate the diversity of uses in a city through ensuring that the mix of uses are respectful of each other in order to ensure co-existence.

The AoC policy is also a strong communications strategy on the part of the City. Sure, the requirements within the AoC are largely covered in other policies in the new London Plan and other local policies but by separating the policy out under its own banner, London is deliberately highlighting the value it places on venues, pubs, local employment, etc. and its intention to protect them. Creating attention-seeking policies can be useful in raising awareness of change amongst stakeholders and perhaps in creating immediate legitimacy to the policy. Protecting the diversity of (loud) uses is important and the policy does deserve the attention.

The national government is currently hearing a bill in Parliament on Agent of Change, with broad cross-party support. In the new proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published March 2018, a version of the Agent of Change policy states that planning policies and decisions should require new development to take into consideration existing businesses and community facilities, and place the responsibility of mitigation on the applicant. It is a change from the previous recommendations of mitigation on behalf of the applicant in the current NPPF.(2) Chapter 15, paragraph 180.

The Agent of Change Policy has been welcomed by a variety of organisations working in the music, entertainment, food and drink industries, including Music Venues Trust and Campaign for Real Ale who have been strong advocates for this policy for years.

On the other hand, some developers are arguing that the cost of mitigation will eat into the viability of a project and might require the developer to cut other costs elsewhere (such as with affordable housing) to meet the requirements set out in the policy.(3) But, who’s buying that, really?

New housing looming over this industrial yard in Hackney London.JPG

In general, protests from the development industry have been few and small. Their protests have been speculative because this policy really  doesn’t create a significant burden economically, if at all, and noise can largely be mitigated through design and layout principles that are required by a variety of other policies including protection against air pollution. Furthermore, these venues are often part of what makes the properties’ high market values.  Selling a ‘vibrant location’ just doesn’t work if the vibrancy has disappeared. Finally, policy experts argue the AoC policy provides clarity and reduces risk for developments, and helps create homes that will be worth their assumed marked price at completion. Even if it adds to the construction budget to most of these developments, the additions would not make the scheme unviable.

Why is the Agent of Change Important?

In 2014, then-London-Mayor Boris Johnson approved a planning application to build a residential development next to the iconic Ministry of Sound nightclub in the neighborhood of Elephant and Castle. It was the case that cast the issue of residential development versus existing cultural and social venues into general public discourse. The venue, which had operated in Elephant and Castle for over 20 years had then been fighting for years to ensure its continued existence as new residential developments had begun rising in the neighbourhood. A new kind of legal agreement between the Ministry of Sound and the developer was created, where the new building would include several design features that protected it from the noise and the venue received a deed of easement to protect it against noise complaints.(4)  Unfortunately, a deed of easement isn’t the best solution as it takes away neighbours’ right to complain about almost any action of the club. It’s a carte blanché, as opposed to giving reasonable responsibilities, like the AoC policy does.

Another Closure in Camden London, from Facebook.jpg

The Ministry of Sound case was a new chapter in London’s development conversation, a city that has seen 40% of its music venues disappear since 2007 partly because of new residential development.(5) Since 2007, London lost a further 50% of its nightclubs and 58% of its LGBT+ venues, of which 33% was a cause of development.(6) 

The importance of music venues to London cannot be stressed enough. Small venues are the foundation of a significant music industry. They provide platforms for new artists and cultural innovation. They are important gathering places for diverse communities. They maintain the social and cultural fabric of the city. Not to mention their contribution to the local economy by generating 2,200+ jobs, £90+ million in GVA, and £45 million in tax revenues.(7) Across the UK, live music venues contribute over £1 billion annually to the economy (the music industry as a whole contributes £4.4 billion to the UK economy).(8) Radiohead and Coldplay are just some examples of world-renowned bands that launched their careers on London stages that have since been closed down.(9)

Meanwhile, some policy experts argue that the constant change occurring in cities is what makes them vibrant and interesting, and believe the AoC only holds back conditions that are due for change. Will policies such as AoC make cities less agile by overprotecting businesses?

With more homes being developed in areas that were once only commercial or industrial, development is happening increasingly where loud activities are already operating. Given such trends, the Agent of Change Policy will become more and more important.

I believe the Agent of Change policy is correcting an injustice of responsibility and making it possible for the venues that hold everyday culture alive, to stay alive themselves. But, the AoC is not enough to save the music venues and pubs of London. There are other issues that are continuing to pressure these venues, including rising rents, hikes in taxes, migration of venue patrons, and property owners with other aspirations for their buildings.(10) The AoC alone works like a lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean, helpful, but not a real rescue.  

The public consultation on the new London Plan, the Planning Policy for London including Policy D12, has now closed and will soon go through an Examination in Public where the proposed policies are reviewed by the independent Planning Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State. They will be evaluated against the NPPF and consultation feedback. I am confident the Policy will be adopted as it stands, but whether it is enough to achieve its intention of preserving a mixed-use city remains to be seen.

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