The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Bulletin


Wednesday 19th July 2006 - Swindon - a place to eat my hat?

Ministers claimed that the new Licensing Act would be much better for live music. Swindon could be the first area to justify these claims - at least in part.

One measure of ministers' optimism would be the number of bars and restaurants that can now, for the first time, host live bands, and whether this represents a significant improvement on the position prior to the new law.  In Parliament recently, ministers said they didn't yet have this data but that DCMS would be conducting research that should provide answers by the autumn.

Last month I asked a few licensing managers whether they had some of this data already. One has so far replied: Lionel Starling, licensing manager for Swindon council.

According to Mr Starling's figures, the number of Swindon pubs, bars and clubs that could host live bands has increased by about a third to 133, or about 86% of the total number of such venues in his licensing area (155). It has to be said that a relatively high proportion of these venues already had a public entertainment licence. Converting this to the new licence was straightforward.  Nonetheless the increase is significant.

Restaurants and hotels, however, fare less well. Only 22 out of 60 have a live music authorisation, or about 37%.  Overall, 72% of pubs, bars, clubs, hotels and restaurants have a live music authorisation.  The downside is that 28% of these venues, formerly able to provide one or two musicians whenever they wanted, are now limited to 'incidental music' and a maximum 12 gigs a year under a Temporary Event Notice.

This data alone would not necessarily mean a thriving gig scene. Venues may have the necessary permissions, but still be subject to onerous licence conditions, such as noise limiter installation, or limits on the number of performers and performance times. But Swindon Council seems to have adopted a light touch. Mr Starling says that only a few venues have noise limiter conditions, and that there are no performer limits:

'The general approach in Swindon is that licences have few if any conditions. It stays that way if there are no problems. If it goes wrong, conditions are waiting in the wings to be used as a correctional device. So far, little has gone wrong. Our corporate slogan is "Making Swindon the UK's Best Business Location" and our Licensing Statement starts "Swindon Borough Council is committed to building and maintaining a diverse, thriving, vibrant and sustainable leisure and hospitality economy. We value the contribution which this sector of the economy makes to the economic well being of Swindon and to the quality of life of those who live here and those who visit us." 

If the national picture for pubs, bars and clubs were as rosy as Mr Starling's data I would have to say that ministers' claims had some merit and reach for some edible headgear. But that is a big 'if'. The legislation was designed to allow wide differences of interpretation and application, and those could mean the difference between a thriving or failing local gig scene.

My thanks to Lionel Starling for his willing and helpful input, and hard work in providing the licensing statistics.

Hamish Birchall