The east London music venue had not faced noise complaints until the pandemic struck but when hospitality reopened its doors, 27 complaints were made against the pub. The council threatened to fine or take away its equipment, so Otiende took matters to court.
Have you experienced a rise in noise complaints at your venue since the pandemic?
“We feel that, since the pandemic, some people got used to areas being very quiet, and now everything’s back open, nights are not as quiet as they used to be,” he adds. It’s a sentiment echoed by many in the sector. While the Jago retained its licence, others have not been so lucky.
According to Clara Cullen, the venue support manager at Music Venues Trust (MVT), which aims to protect, secure and improve the UK’s grassroots music venues, noise complaints had been a “really core threat” to music venues since 2018.
Of the 118 emergency cases handled by MVT last year, around a third were related to noise complaints. Cullen puts the problem down to people complaining about noise after moving to the area during lockdown, where areas were under restrictions.
Last year, George Orwell’s “perfect pub” was hit by complaints by nearby residents claiming the site was too loud and posed a health hazard. The historic site managed to retain its licence but with an added noise management and dispersal policy issued by Islington Council.
Under the Licensing Act 2003, licence holders are required to prevent public nuisance, so the issue comes when neighbours complain of loud music being a ‘nuisance’.
Furthermore, iconic venue Night & Day Café in Manchester is in the process of appealing a noise abatement notice served by Manchester City Council in 2021, after residents who moved into a neighbouring flat during Covid complained about noise levels.
The site’s history is star-studded, with band names including Elbow, Wet Leg, Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian having played at the venue as they rose to fame.
Almost 10,000 people, including The Charlatans singer Tim Burgess, have signed a petition calling for the venue’s noise abatement notice to be removed.
A spokesperson for Manchester City Council comments: “Following a joint application between the council and representatives from Night & Day Café, an adjournment has been granted by the presiding judge. The council remains hopeful a solution that allows Night & Day to thrive as well as allowing the council to uphold its legal duties can be found.”
A fragile sector
Noise complaints join the perfect storm of problems facing the sector, including soaring energy costs, a staffing shortage and climbing inflation rates. New research from the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) reveals the worrying statistic that one third of UK nightclubs have been lost since before the pandemic.
NTIA chief executive Michael Kill says noise complaints have been a growing issue over the past five years. Without a doubt, he says they have been exacerbated by the pandemic when residents experienced periods of lower noise levels due to the closure of night-time economy businesses.
As the night-time economy reopened, the trade body saw an influx of complaints from people living in towns and cities that has led to enforcement officers taking action without consideration for the contrasting lockdown periods.
Kill adds: “Under the current financial operating constraints, businesses are struggling to survive and, in many cases, the approach by local authorities has led to premises licences being challenged, costing thousands in legal fees that operators do not have, tipping vulnerable businesses into financial hardship.”
This is something experienced first-hand by Pauline Forster, licensee of legendary arts and music venue the George Tavern, which she claims to be the last pub in Stepney, east London.
“Under the current financial operating constraints, businesses are struggling to survive and, in many cases, the approach by local authorities has led to premises licences being challenged, costing thousands in legal fees that operators do not have, tipping vulnerable businesses into financial hardship.”
Some 15 years ago, a building association planned to build flats on top of an old nightclub adjacent to the Grade II-listed pub. Forster was “fired up”. She started a campaign against the decision with celebrities including Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss sporting ‘Save the George’ T-shirts in solidarity.
The pub won the appeal but the building association put in another request a few years later. Forster piled pressure on the council, and once again, successfully blocked the flats from being built.
After sound surveys were conducted, the pub was granted a legal ‘deed of easement’. This meant, if anyone bought flats in the area, they would not have the right to complain about the noise created by music. However, there is still a threat because residents who already live there do have the ability to complain, according to the publican.
“If we lost our music licence, we would lose the pub,” says Forster. She is insulating the building with toughened glass to appease a neighbour across the road. Asa temporary measure, she has covered windows with roof insulation as well as hanging up double-lined velvet curtains. It will cost a fortune, she adds, but will have to be done because “one person can close you down”.
Communication is key
For Forster, it is important to reach out to neighbours you think might pose a problem. She visited the neighbour with flowers and an invite to the pub.
A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson says: “It is recognised that noise exposure can cause annoyance and sleep disturbance both of which impact on quality of life. It is also agreed by many experts that annoyance and sleep disturbance can give rise to adverse health effects, especially if exposed to it over longer periods.”
The spokesperson says venues can stop music becoming a ‘nuisance’ by offering conditions to their licences that can be as simple as keeping doors and windows closed when playing music or having a sound limiter fitted.
The Jago has also taken measures to keep noise levels down. An acoustic company ran a sound test and the pub now covers windows and plays music at a much lower level. Since then, the pub has not received any complaints.
Otiende wishes the council could see the synergy between local businesses. “If we’re busy, the restaurants are busy,” he says. “It’s not just seeing these venues as ‘it’s a venue where people drink and it’s noisy’. We’re part of a bigger ecosystem and that relies on everyone.”
London night czar Amy Lamé says London’s nightlife is “key” to its economic and social recovery, but businesses have battled through a few tough years due to the pandemic and were now struggling with staff shortages and the spiralling cost of business.
She continues: “The mayor made protecting venues a key priority in his London Plan, which included the introduction of the ‘agent-of-change principle’, and we continue to work with local authorities to ensure well-run venues are safeguarded.
“We are doing all we can to offer advice and support through our Culture and Community Spaces at Risk team and continue to call on the Government to play its part in supporting London’s venues and tackling the soaring cost of doing business.”
“It’s not just seeing these venues as ‘it’s a venue where people drink and it’s noisy’. We’re part of a bigger ecosystem and that relies on everyone.”
Soho’s bustling high streets have also caused issues for its residents. Some 60% of respondents to the 2022 Soho Sleep Survey say sleep deprivation from noise nuisance has adversely impacted their health.
One resident says they can't work after insomnia led to anxiety and depression. “I’ve lived in Soho for 60 years… born and bred,” another adds. “It’s never been this noisy!”
What's the solution?
What should you do if you get a noise complaint?
Advice from Poppleston Allen solicitor Felix Faulkner
- Keep a log of complaints to show you’ve been proactive in monitoring them and any solutions you have put in place.
- Outline what you intend to do to stop those complaints – understanding the root cause of the issue. For instance, if the noise is coming from an external smoking area, outline how you will manage that area.
- Cooperate with the authorities at all times.
- Take resident complaints and comments seriously
- If you’re hit with a noise abatement notice, don’t ignore it, do seek legal advice.
- Put plans in place to find a solution – e.g. play slow songs to calm customers’ mindsets before the end of the night to ensure a relaxed atmosphere and a healthier disperal, or give out free food at the end of a night so guests will be focused on eating rather than making noise.
But Cullen believes there’s a solution, and it lies in residents and venues communicating with each other. “If people in the local area feel they are connected to their local music venue, they become a kind of stakeholder,” she says.
She also says more dialogue between council departments would be “really helpful” because she finds often within the cultural, environmental and planning departments, the “left hand is not speaking to the right”.
UKHospitality (UKH) chief executive Kate Nicholls agrees instances of noise complaints should be attempted to be resolved, in the first instance, by dialogue between the parties.
UKH also supports the ‘agent-of-change principle’, where developers of any new accommodation near to existing licensed premises have a duty to mitigate noise in their plans rather than seeing premises being penalised after development.
“At a time when hospitality venues are under immense pressure from rising costs across the board, we’d hope this dialogue can resolve any issues before it reaches the point of a review, or even a licence being removed,” Nicholls adds.
Eye-watering fines and abatement notices are the last thing the fragile late-night sector needs. Here's to hoping venues and residents can communicate, work together, and reduce the threat noise complaints pose to Britain's vibrant music venues.