On 20th February 2017 I came across an interesting planning application on Womanby Street. The development in question would see the demolition of a derelict office block between Clwb Ifor Bach and the beer garden of Vodka Revolution, to be replaced with a 7 storey building comprising a retail unit on the ground floor and 6 flats above. The tall thin building looked interesting, and certainly matches the style of many of the existing buildings in this part of the city.
The plans have proved controversial, at the time of writing (April 4th, 2017) the online portal for this planning application has received 281 comments opposing it (roughly 18 per day). This number is unprecedented; the hugely controversial Plasdwr development in North West Cardiff only received 244 complaints between December 2014 and March 2017. But why so many objections, surely seeing fewer derelict buildings in the city centre can only be a good thing?
Well yes and no – yes it is good to see developments in Cardiff, but no it is not good if that development threatens the very existence of businesses in the area and threatens ruining the nightlife and culture that makes Cardiff what it is.
I’ll explain, in December 2016 the JD Wetherspoon pub on Womanby Street (The Gatekeeper) submitted a planning application to turn a number of disused upper floors into hotel rooms (in line with the company’s recent diversification into the hotel trade). The application was passed with only two complaints, the most notable of which came in January 2017 from neighbours Clwb Ifor Bach who cited concerns about potential noise complaints that may arise from people staying at the hotel.
Clwb’s concerns appear to have been vindicated, the following month Fuel Rock Club (directly Opposite Clwb) was issued with a Noise Abatement Notice by Cardiff Council. The notice was served after numerous complaints of excessive noise by a resident who appears to have moved into the vicinity of Womanby Street. The notice threatens Fuel’s very existence, and unless it can come up with some satisfactory solutions to combat the problem they could be forced to close. This threat of closure has come about because of one person’s complaint; suddenly the thought of 6 flats and a 15-bed hotel opening on Womanby Street is seriously concerning for these local businesses.
The worrying thing is this would not be the first time the Council have forced a long-standing music venue to close due to noise complaints by neighbours. In 2009 live music venue “The Point” in Butetown was forced to close its doors with debts of over £100,000 amassed from a costly refurbishment programme. The refurbishment included costly soundproofing for the former Church building, soundproofing that the council said was necessary due to noise complaints from residents in neighbouring apartments – apartments that were built when The Point was already an established live music venue.
This move by the council sets a dangerous precedent – allowing developers to construct apartments or hotels next to existing businesses and then force those businesses to pay costly bills to fix problems that had previously produced zero complaints. But you have to ask yourself a serious question here – who moves next to a live music venue and then complains about the noise? More to the point, why aren’t the council asking that exact question?
Womaby Street is seen by many people (myself included) as having the best atmosphere and nightlife in the city centre, and inevitably good nightlife and live music means noise, quite a lot of it and quite late in the evening. If you move in next to a club you have to accept there will be noise late in to the evening. Allowing these apartments to be built does not mean the likes of Fuel and Clwb Ifor Bach definitely will close, but it is certainly worrying news and not just for these business. It is bad news for the thousands of people who enjoy visiting these venues, and for the small local bands who might just catch a big break by playing a gig here, and more importantly it is bad news for Cardiff – because for every local venue that is forced to close because of the actions of a speculative developer we lose a little bit of our culture and a little bit of our identity.