Live music and city living

Edinburgh can host both a thriving live music scene and a lived-in city centre argues CHAS BOOTH.

Live music from pubs and other venues continues to be a thorny issue in Edinburgh.

On the one hand, musicians and venues argue that an overly restrictive approach to noise is stifling live music in a city which prides itself on being a cultural centre. Since breaching council rules that music should not be “audible” in adjacent homes carries the potential penalty of loss of alcohol licence, this is argued to have a “chilling effect”: when venues will not run the risk by having music in the first place.

On the other hand, residents and community groups argue that Edinburgh also prides itself on having a lived-in city centre and that people who live in the city centre have reasonable expectations of an undisturbed night’s sleep.

The “Music is Audible” working group has been attempting to navigate through this debate, by coming up with a new form of words for licensing rules. In a nutshell it proposes to change the rule from “music shall be inaudible” to “music shall not be an audible nuisance.”  From the point of view of venues this clarifies that there is some level of noise which may be heard but may not be a problem and offers greater flexibility. It also puts music from licensed venues on the same footing as other noise complaints – for example, between two households – where the nuisance test is used.

However, it is undoubtedly more subjective. “Nuisance” is in the ear of the listener. It depends on time and place and context.  What might be appropriate at 9.30pm on a Saturday night in the centre of town might not be appropriate at 11.30pm on a Tuesday night in an otherwise quiet residential street.

At Licensing Board on Monday past, it was clear that people felt unheard or that their views had been mis-represented. That is why I supported a public hearing in which councillors can hear directly from all perspectives. This need not delay matters.  I have since written to the Convenor of the Licensing Board to ask that the hearing is held as quickly as possible.

And at that hearing I shall argue for greater clarity about the way forward. I recognise that the city benefits from a thriving live music scene and that responsible venues who are good neighbours should be able to host live music without  apprehension.  However, should some venues not behave responsibly, local residents need to be assured that the council can take action decisively.

The way to do this, I believe, is to approve the new “nuisance-based” licensing rule and apply it to venues which seek a change of licence conditions. This would only apply to venues who apply, however – so those who perhaps do not play live music may be content to keep the old rule. I also think it’s important to be clear that, if the board receives a complaint about a persistent noise nuisance from an irresponsible venue, it can and will take action to tackle that.

I don’t pretend that this will resolve every single dispute – the current regime does not achieve that either. But it will send the right signal to venues, musicians and residents alike that music and city living can co-exist peacefully.

Cllr Chas Booth is Green spokesperson on Culture and Sport and a member of Edinburgh Licensing Board.  A shorter version of this blog is published in the Evening News on 1 September 2016