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A DIY scene under siege: Small spaces targeted by noise complaints and legal obstacles

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Plot 22. Photo by Connor Matheson.

Sheffield's fragile DIY music scene is at risk of disappearing completely due to noise complaints, reduced funding and a lack of support from the authorities.

The last few years have seen three cornerstone venues - Hatch, Plot 22 and The Lughole - close temporarily or indefinitely.

In August, objections from neighbours forced a new club space in Attercliffe to cancel all its events before it even launched. Gut Level is located in a heavily industrial area and isn't near any homes.

Problems faced by venues range from licensing issues to repeated noise complaints, as well as contradictory attitudes from different areas of the Council.

The environmental protection service in the Council always advised us that the venue was not fit for purpose

Plot 22 on Exchange Street have recently crowdfunded £6,031 to make the necessary alterations in order to reopen.

Founded by RiteTrax in an old betting shop, the space operated for only 15 months from May 2017. During that time it hosted over 50 events, including exhibitions, workshops, club nights and gigs.

"The environmental protection service in the Council always advised us that the venue was not fit for purpose," Michael Thompson of Plot 22 told Now Then. "This was something of a problem as the Council encouraged us to take the space."

In May 2018, the Council's own Environmental Protection Service (EPS) objected to the granting of further temporary event licenses to Plot 22.

At a hearing on 15 May, councillors on the Licensing Sub-Committee granted a further license, overruling objections from the Council's own officers.

According to the minutes, EPS officer Bob Singh "stated that following the evidence gathered, it would appear that events held at Plot 22, although advertised as art, music and culture, bore little resemblance to this."

Plot 22 is primarily associated with electronic and bass music culture, but has also hosted punk and metal gigs.

The minutes raise questions over the extent to which subjective judgements on the value of certain types of culture influence the decisions of Council officers.

It costs quite a bit of money to get a noise consultant

Despite the dispute with the EPS, another area of the Council promoting the regeneration of Castlegate awarded Plot 22 a £10,000 grant.

"Over summer last year, [a resident] carried on complaining about the events that we had, even though we continued to do noise readings and make any adjustments we could," said Thompson.

"He basically complained enough times that EPS said we had to stop making any noise until we got this noise report done. It costs quite a bit of money to get a noise consultant - money that we didn't have."

When the regeneration grant eventually came through, Plot 22 used part of it to hire a noise expert from the University of Sheffield to carry out a survey during a club night.

"We went over to the complainant's house, did a reading from his bedroom, and basically it didn't even register," said Thompson.

"I've been in this guy's flat with him on the night of an event before, and we've both agreed we could hear nothing. I said, well, in any case, here's my number. He's never given me a ring out of all the times he's complained."

The venue held its last event in August 2018. It remains closed while RiteTrax carry out building work funded by grant money and the crowdfunder.

Thompson wanted to stress the support the venue has received from Simon Ogden, director of the Council's Castlegate Kickstart Project, who Thompson describes as "a constant source of support."

We decided to take a month off, move all our gigs, and when we restart we're going to unfortunately have a very strict 11pm curfew

"It's evident enough that the Council is not unified in its approach to these complaints. They're a many-headed beast and it depends on what day you speak to them."

According to cult punk venue The Lughole, "threats and pressure" from the Council and private developers forced their closure in early 2018.

They've since found a new space but will need to raise £20,000 to make it usable. Organisers have blamed "numerous unexpected costs from the Council during the planning application procedure and also other legal costs like solicitors' fees."

On the other side of the city, Hatch (formerly known as The Audacious Art Experiment) have also received noise complaints due to people arriving at and leaving the venue.

"We decided to take a month off, move all our gigs to bars and venues in town. When we restart we have no choice but to enforce a very strict 11pm curfew to curtail noise on the street", Trubble Brewin, a pseudonymous representative from the Hatch collective, told Now Then.

Difficulties faced by smaller music venues have been exacerbated by the lack of support and infrastructure offered by local authorities and arts bodies.

"It massively depends on which area of the Council, because they're all very different," said Trubble. They singled out Ogden's regeneration team for recognising the value of DIY spaces.

What we've ended up with is a very neoliberal way of doing culture

"The environmental health and the noise complaint teams need to actually talk to the regeneration team. They need to realise that they're battling over the same thing."

But Trubble sees the struggles faced by DIY venues as symptomatic of a wider pattern.

"What we've ended up with is a very neoliberal way of doing culture," they said. "There's no state support [...] There was no money for Union St. CADS were behind quite a lot of those spaces, and as far as I can remember there was never any money from the Council."

Slashed budgets mean that local authorities have to pick their battles when it comes to licensing. Sheffield City Council have had £390 million cut from their total budget since 2010.

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"There's a freedom that's provided by the fact that the state has been massively weakened," said Trubble. "DIY is flourishing because there's no money to try and reel it in. There's so many empty spaces because we're still in a recession.

"But at the same time, it's so fragile. It's all led by volunteers with their own money and it can so easily be shunted out the way when there's some complaint or a new corporate interest."

Across the DIY scene, operating lawfully can often be more difficult than running shows under the radar of licensing authorities.

Trubble wonders whether projects without funding and run entirely by volunteers represent the future of the UK's cultural industries.

The DIY scene will continue to be incredibly unstable and volatile

"There's all these intelligent people, like at Foodhall running this incredible project, but there's no careers out of anything anymore," they said. "They're not going to be able to expand."

"Part of me feels like it will never change."

They continued: "People are obviously never going to stop doing amazing things, but there's a future we're faced with where there's no funding for anything and it's all just done off the back of people's interests."

The recent wave of closures highlights the fragility of the whole movement.

"[The DIY scene] will continue to be incredibly unstable and volatile," said Trubble. "The best thing people can do is support things like the Lughole campaign, making sure we're not keeping all our eggs in one basket. The situation is not going to change."

Plot 22 plans to reopen its doors sometime in the next few months. Founder Michael Thompson was keen to emphasise the support a healthy DIY scene needs from its audience.

"It's about people who attend events understanding all of the hard work that goes into these things, and supporting the venues and events unconditionally," he said.

"It runs on a loyal following, whether it's Hatch or [Delicious] Clam or Plot [22]. Whatever it is, it relies on people believing in it and supporting it by coming out to the events."

Sam Gregory

Donate to The Lughole II fundraiser.

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