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Does peace and quiet always take priority over loud music?

25 February 10 12:52 GMT
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A row between a world-famous nightclub and property developers highlights a conflict between the right to protection from noise and the right to have a good time.

El Born is one of the trendiest areas in Barcelona. For much of the year, tourists make a beeline for its loft apartments set over narrow streets.

If you book a room in El Born you accept something - that the noise of this vibrant area may, just may, keep you awake at night.

It's a trade-off that some areas of the UK seem to be struggling with.

The Ministry of Sound nightclub is fighting a battle to stop a new residential development being built nearby which, it says, could spell the end for the club after nearly two decades.

The problem is this. If flats are built nearby, residents could complain about the noise from the club. The council would be obliged to investigate and might issue a noise abatement notice. Such a notice could put the club in jeopardy.

The developer Oakmayne says it has offered a litany of measures to eliminate the problem, including paying for soundproofing at the famous club and sealing the windows on the club side of its flats.

But the fear remains that whatever measures were taken the possibility would always exist of a dreaded noise abatement order.

It's a familiar story to those who run the pubs, clubs, bars and gig venues in many of Britain's city centres.

The Point in Cardiff - an abandoned church converted into a venue - closed last year in part due to noise complaints from new residential developments. An established urban music club Imperial Gardens in Camberwell, south London, closed several years ago for the same reasons.

And in Digbeth in Birmingham there has been campaigning to save The Rainbow music venue and the Spotted Dog pub, both of which have been served with noise abatement orders after a block of 180 flats arrived.

Digbeth certainly represents a wider pattern. Pubs, clubs, venues and galleries colonise a former industrial area in the middle of the city that has been plagued by dereliction. As they make the place buzzier so people become interested in living there.

Just one call

But when the residential developments arrive, they bring the possibility of complaints.

The duty of councils is clear, says the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

"Under section 79(1)(g) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, local authorities have a duty to take reasonably practicable steps to investigate complaints of 'noise emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance'"

But there are problems with the law, says Lohan Presencer, chief executive of the Ministry of Sound Group.

"The reality of the situation is that the licensing laws are so unclear and subjective. Once there are a thousand residents, if one person wants to press a complaint - it needn't be about noise - that would be sufficient to be classed as a nuisance... to have our licence revoked and our club shuts."

The issue of one complaint being taken as seriously as a hundred is one that vexes venue owners, says John Tighe, of the Spotted Dog pub in Digbeth.

"Nobody in their right mind would choose to live here unless they liked the music," says Mr Tighe. "[The council believe] they have a statutory duty to react to a single complaint."

The result of the complaints was the end of concerts in the Spotted Dog's beer garden with dire financial consequences.

"They are going to close down Digbeth, the only area of Birmingham where live music is played."

One might think that people moving into a development next to an enormous club might expect noise on a Friday and Saturday night. But there is no exception in the law for longstanding venues in formerly non-residential areas.

On the other hand, not all residents of trendy inner-city developments have chosen to be there.

As well as the "posh penthouses" there is often social housing, says Mary Stevens, of Environmental Protection UK - a group which tries to find an accommodation between the competing interests of residents, business and others.

Need for sleep

Indeed, many councils will only rubber-stamp an application for a block of flats if it includes properties for low-income residents. Those residents are then allocated their premises - rather than opt for them.

And the notion that it only takes one complaint to shut down a nightclub should be treated with caution, she says.

"It's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to complain that all it takes is one complaint. Local officials have to take a judgement about what is reasonable to the average person," says Ms Stevens.

And even before a block of flats goes up, councils are obliged to take into account the needs of existing businesses when judging planning applications. And noise levels must be tested.

But those behind music venues claim that they often do not go far enough.

Birmingham City Council says it is making every effort to keep Digbeth rocking, albeit quietly.

"We are mindful of the delicate balancing act required in Digbeth in order to both promote the area's thriving entertainment sector, while also protecting a reasonable quality of life for local residents. However, there are many vibrant and creative venues within Digbeth, and at other locations within the city, that operate without causing a noise nuisance. The two things are not mutually exclusive."

But perhaps there is bigger issue at the heart of this - music venues are seen as different to other businesses, particularly because they serve alcohol. To many residents they have a fundamentally undesirable tint to them.

Dominique Czapor runs The Boiler Room in Guildford, Surrey, and also we:LIVE, a support group for those involved in music venues. There was local opposition when she took over.

"They had a 200-strong petition against us before we had even opened. A lot of people have a preconceived idea.

"We are not these pushers of alcohol. For the local community we provide a place for under 18s to go to. We provide that sense of community lost in a lot of chain pubs."

And if venues do get the go-ahead, it is only after they are saddled with paying for measures like soundproofing. It's a cost that can often kill a struggling venue and Ms Czapor would like the onus no longer to be on the venues.

"We are losing some of the best venues we have got in the country due to this problem."

Clues to how to tackle the noise issue may lie in those places that have always had residential and entertainment functions. A raft of little considerations can make life easier, says Fiona Rhys-Jenkins Bailey, chairwoman of the Soho Society, which covers much of London's West End.

"How we square the balance is very delicate. Obviously the businesses have to be able to run but people have to be able to sleep."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I once lived in a flat underneath a family, one of whom played bagpipes. When I watched the same TV programme as them, I could turn off my volume and listen to theirs. Shouting and slamming doors happened continually. Yet they were unaware they were noisy! It all boils down to one thing, selfishness - on which our society runs. Bankers, politicians and the media propagate selfishness and, like my former neighbours, don't even see that they are selfish. This was not so when I was young.
Porridgeeater, Perth, Scotland

It's very sad that these great venues are closing, but they do bring it on themselves in part. Everywhere you go the music is too bloody loud! Even traditional pubs etc. blast it out. I've never been able to understand this, having the volume so high you can't hear anyone talk just isn't what most people want (maybe it's to sell more drinks - if you can't chat to your mates all there is left to do is get so drunk you don't care?). The cost of soundproofing, noise complaints, problems with drunks - all will be reduced if the management just turn the volume down!
Richard, London

Is it not pretty obvious if the club was there first and you buy a flat that is next to the club in full knowledge of that fact then it is reasonable to have to endure the noise associated. If a club tried to open up next to residential places it would probably be turned down. We have lost so many live music venues to redevelopment and restrictions we should not lose anymore.
Franc Lowe, London

The claims by club/pub owners that they will be closed down after one complaint are clearly hyper over-reactions. The law on noise abatement simply doesn't work like this. Unfortunately, many residents in blocks of flats will tell you that it is extremely difficult to get anything done about noisy neighbours because local authorities will simply not act or not act quickly enough. Also, the idea that there should be a 'democratic right' to produce excessive noise is a complete nonsense, for that, after all, is what we are talking about - excessive noise. Without wishing to labour the point, the fact is that we are living in times when excessive noise is an increasing and all-pervasive issue. It is, quite simply, a form of pollution of the environment and should be treated as such.
Gareth L Williams, Cardiff

The trouble with noise complaints is that it is all subjective. What is acceptable to one person is unbearable to another. The type of music being played can also make a difference - if you like it, you're not liable to complain! There are undoubtedly people who are just plain nasty, and will complain about neighbours, pets, traffic, noise, smells - anything because it's how they take out their personal frustrations. But these pubs and clubs should also be aware that they play music too loudly - their clientele should be able to hold a conversation without shouting at someone a foot away from them - the sound should be an accessory to a good night out, not the overwhelming experience. I imagine most complaints don't come from those who initially move in to an area with a club, but from those that buy the flat subsequently, who might be paying more attention to price than the nearby pub. I would not expect a pub to make such a racket that it disturbed the entire street, and clubs can be deceptively bland on the outside.
Jackie, Edinburgh

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