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Welcome To Your Acoustically Sealed Box: The Latest In Birmingham's BTR Battleground

You've just moved into your lovely new Birmingham apartment. The city vibe is all around you, and you just want to be part of it. You decide to push open the window and soak it up.

But you can't. You are living in an eerily quiet, strangely airless, acoustically sealed box.

This could be the future for some Birmingham residential schemes thanks to a long-simmering row over development in the Gay Village.

Birmingham lgbt nightclub gay
Nightingale Club, corner of Essex Street and Kent Street, Birmingham, showing graffiti street art by Inkie

Do home renters have a right to an open window, are noisy neighbours in fact "soundscapes of value", and to what degree is the late-night economy threatened by the growth of high-density residential development?

A dispute between the Gooch Estate, which wants to build 116 apartments at Kent Street, Birmingham, and neighbours the Medusa Lodge, a lap-dancing venue, and Birmingham's venerable gay nightclub The Nightingale, are testing these questions.

Birmingham City Council has been pondering a decision on the Kent Street application since December and was supposed to have come before councillors on 29 August. A report to councillors said the applicants plan to appeal on grounds of non-determination whilst Midlands Business Insider reported the item been dropped from the agenda by mutual consent to allow further talks to take place.

Two issues are at stake. First, can the city council insist on accoustically sealed apartments as a solution to mitigate potential noise from commercial occupiers near a new residential development? Medusa said they can't and shouldn't. Second, can the developer give long-term guarantees that protect late-night economy venues? The Nightingale said nothing they offer is likely to work.

If neither issue can be resolved, high-density development in parts of Birmingham, and in other cities, could be in doubt.

A Soundscape Of Value

BirminghaM BTR RESIDENTIAL
1 Exchange Square, developed by Nikal: another Birmingham Southside residential scheme

Medusa Lodge hired its own sound specialist, and its reasons for objecting to Gooch'e scheme are worth a read.

“For a development to be sustainable it must enable people to live in a vibrant area, without having to live in acoustically sealed boxes with no ability to open windows to connect to the world outside,” its submission said.

“To achieve this in such close proximity to high noise sources requires design of the highest acoustic merit, and the risk remains that even then complaints may result from people who choose to open their windows and expect the environment to be quiet enough for them to be able to sleep. Whilst this might be considered unreasonable if they are bypassing the mitigation provided, this is a matter of judgement and could result in formal action which would certainly place unreasonable burdens on the businesses who generate noise in the area, and potentially causing serious harm to the character of the area which is itself valued.”

Medusa said bass sounds are hard to blot out, even in acoustically controlled environments. It called for "a fundamental and strategic rethink” which recognises “a night time soundscape of value, for cultural and community reasons", and therefore the vibrancy of the city night-time economy be protected by refusing the application. This is in the public benefit, as to permit these schemes would place the vibrancy and so the future of the Gay Village of Birmingham under significant threat, Medusa argued.

Agent Of Change

Welcome To Your Acoustically Sealed Box: The Latest In Birmingham's BTR Battleground
Entrance to the Queer Street gay night in Birmingham

The Nightingale’s complaint picks up on Medusa’s analysis. Neither rate the effectiveness of the new “agent of change” principle included in the revised National Planning Policy Framework which was designed to protect late-night venues.

The rule is supposed to require mitigation by the incoming user, and not prevent unreasonable change being forced on existing users. However, The Nightingale said that the council should consider the cumulative effect caused by another residential development on the area’s late-night economy and point out that the debate so far has turned on whether residents will be able (ever) to open permanently sealed windows. If they are sealed, then the result is poor air quality which is contrary to planning rules. If they can be opened, then the risk of complaints about noise can never be entirely ruled out.

“It is to be noted that the Kent Street development is not proposing sealed windows,” The Nightingale said.

The killer blow comes from the council’s own regulatory services team, which said the noise data about The Nightingale is out of date because the club now has an outdoor terrace.

“The applicant should ensure that the worst case noise levels have been considered in the acoustic assessment when designing mitigation … BCC Regulatory Services have not been able to confirm whether or not the glazing specification would deal with the worst case scenario,” the report said.

Worse, permanently closed windows “would not be acceptable under Statutory Nuisance provisions," the report continued. "If the proposed development goes ahead and residents complain as a result of intrusive noise, BCC Regulatory Services are almost certain to determine a statutory nuisance from The Nightingale and will be legally obliged to serve notice (as under statutory nuisance residents would be entitled to open their windows regardless of whether mechanical ventilation is available or not)."

Developers in city centre is always a balancing act. Your big city vibe is my sleepless night, your right to earn a living is in conflict with my right to shut the door on the world.

Birmingham’s Kent Road conflict shows the city is no nearer a solution. This could be a mighty stumbling block for future BTR development.

Can residential developers and the late-night economy live together, or is Birmingham BTR heading for some sleepless nights? Join the conversation at the Bisnow Birminghham BTR update on 11 September