John Spellar outlines case for Agent of Change in House of Commons

Read John Spellar's full speech in the House of Commons today

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10/01/18: Read John Spellar's full speech in the House of Commons today below.

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require specified planning controls in relation to developments likely to be affected by existing noise sources; and for connected purposes.

This Bill is designed to protect existing music venues from closure or crippling cost arising from the development of new residential properties in their vicinity, especially over questions of noise.

Why is that a problem? The Music Venue Trust and UK Music have been campaigning on the matter for some time and estimate that more than a third of music venues have closed over the past decade. Many Members of Parliament have examples of much-loved venues in their area that have been closed or are under threat. That is why there has been such widespread cross-party support for this Bill, as shown by the number of Members who have already pledged their support and the turnout at this morning’s photocall. This important issue was also raised on 3 November in an Adjournment debate by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). There has also been welcome support from some of the music greats. Sir Paul McCartney said today:

“Without the grassroots clubs, pubs and music venues my career could have been very different. If we don’t support music at this level, then the future of music in general is in danger.”

I accept that there is a variety of reasons for the decline in venues, but many relate to changes in the neighbourhood, increasingly when redundant commercial or industrial premises are converted to residential, or are knocked down and rebuilt, or as empty sites are developed. Of course, much of that is very welcome. It is part of the regeneration of our inner cities, restoring their historic vibrancy and creating much-needed homes. However, it can sometimes lead to the loss of what makes parts of those areas attractive in the first place, especially to younger residents. Incidentally, that applies not just to music venues but to the wider fabric of inner-city life, and there are important questions as to how we preserve the vibrancy and diversity of city life more generally across our main conurbations.

My short Bill is a modest and focused measure that would adopt the principle of agent of change into planning law. That basically means that when buildings are converted to residential use or a new development is put up, the onus is on the developer—not the venue—to ensure that the new dwellings are protected from factors, particularly noise, that could be held to affect their general amenity and enjoyment.

Moves are already being made around the country to address these concerns. Many grassroots campaigns are being mounted to save local venues. For example, among my Bill’s sponsors are my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who have been campaigning with the Music Venue Trust in support of The Fleece in Bristol—a city, incidentally, that I am informed has more office-to-residential conversions than anywhere else outside London.

Two other sponsors, my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), have been supporting the “Save Womanby Street” campaign, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). That has led directly to the Welsh Labour Government’s welcome adoption of the agent of change principle across Wales. Another sponsor, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), is concerned to protect the rapidly growing Cheese and Grain—a much valued venue in Frome—which shows that this is not just about the inner cities. The Mayor of London, with “London’s Grassroots Music Venues: Rescue Plan”, has that he will be introducing an agent of change rule into the next London plan. As I mentioned, the Welsh Government have announced a similar move, and this is also already under consideration by the Scottish Parliament and Government.

My Bill will provide the legislative reinforcement for that. It aims to give much greater clarity and greater power for local councils and the planning inspectors to incorporate the principle into planning decisions. Why do it? Why was I so receptive to this idea, and why is there such strong public support? Because it matters. Of course it matters to those who enjoy the entertainment and for whom it opens new horizons. Obviously, it also matters for the staff and owners of the venues. But it matters a lot more than that—and not just for the nearby late-night kebab shops.

For a start, there is the impact on musicians, which is why the Bill is being supported by the Musicians’ Union. Less venues means less work and less opportunity to develop talent—or even for musicians to find out that they are not going to make it in the industry. It also means less opportunity to move up from amateur to part-time to full-time professional, and to national or even international stardom. I was talking today to Billy Bragg, who mentioned that he tried three times to move from having an ordinary job and working part-time to being a full-time musician. It was the existence of the clubs, pubs and venues that enabled him finally to make it on to the national stage.

We are in danger of taking away the ladder that has served both individual musicians and the music industry so well for so long. And what an industry—not only are domestic sales rising again, but we are second to the United States in international reach and sales. It is a huge boost to Britain’s standing around the world and our soft power—not to mention millions in overseas sales last year—let alone being a significant part of our tourism offer. But there is a real concern that the industry is now depending on a great past, with a lot of grey hair around. Now, I declare an interest, as I am in favour of good representation of grey hair, but I also support refreshing the pipeline with new talent. That is no comment on yesterday’s Government reshuffle. There is a danger of mining, rather than farming, our musical heritage. Losing music venues also narrows a route of opportunity for working-class youngsters, many from our deprived inner cities and left-behind industrial towns.

As a west midlands MP, I am of course proud to represent part of the area that gave birth to heavy metal, and I am particularly focused on the cities and conurbations. However, I also recognise how damaging the loss of venues can be to the life and attraction of smaller towns, and to retaining youngsters and slowing the drift to the cities. All those factors are important, but there is another factor that makes this provision imperative, and it is why the matter requires urgent action either from Parliament or the Government—given the wide level of cross-party support from ex-Ministers, as well as members of the MP4 band, I hope that the Government will adopt this measure and help to push it through. That factor is Brexit.
As Brexit is happening and we face an uncertain future, it is vital that Britain is made more efficient and effective across the board and that we maximise every possible advantage that Britain has. One of these is clearly our cultural and entertainment offer, not only in London but in our other great centres around the country, many of which, including Birmingham and Manchester, are attracting increasing foreign investment and work—although, of course, Birmingham is the best venue for Channel 4.

Companies clearly locate initially for a range of hard-headed, financial, economic and communication reasons, but the quality of life is also significant. It is partly about personal safety, environmental quality and a pleasant streetscape, but it is also about the answer to the basic question, “Would I want to live there?” That is a question not only for companies, but for the staff they are seeking to attract, especially the highly mobile, technically skilled and talented international and multinational workforce, not least in our huge creative sector. The cultural and living environment is important to them. That means art galleries, theatres, concert halls, opera, ballet, football clubs, rugby clubs and other sporting environments, but it also means music venues and the street scene. It poses a question to those companies who are being enticed to move abroad after Brexit: “Would you and your family—especially your children and, equally importantly, your employees—prefer to live in London, Birmingham or Manchester, or in Frankfurt?”

I hope that this measure will provide some small but useful assistance and relief to a valued industry. I commend the Bill to the House.

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