Norwich's largest nightclub faces closure after seven-year noise row with city council
PUBLISHED: 13:13 18 July 2015 | UPDATED: 13:13 18 July 2015
Norwich's largest nightclub is facing closure over a seven-year-long row which has cost more than a million pounds, its manager has claimed.
The Evening News today lifts the lid on the wrangle between Mercy nightclub in Prince of Wales Road and Norwich City Council.
It began in 2008, with a city council planning decision to allow an office block next to the 2,300-capacity nightclub to be turned into homes.
Toby Middleton, manager of Mercy nightclub, claims that noise complaints began as soon as residents moved into the new homes, and said he was now instructing solicitors to bring a case against the council.
He said the club had closed for nine months for a costly overhaul to improve soundproofing measures, but it was impossible to solve the problem completely as the homes abut the nightclub and bass lines reverberate through the wall.
The total spent to date, including lawyers and acoustic consultants, exceeded £1m, he claimed, and it was quickly becoming financially unviable to keep the club open.
Mercy remains open for business, and bosses have vowed to do all they can to keep the club open despite issues stemming from the change of use from offices to homes
A spokesman for Norwich City Council said that the authority followed all the correct procedures in its planning decision, with a letter sent to Mercy before the decision was taken, a site notice posted and an advert placed in the press about the proposals.
The spokesman added that officers were aware that the properties were adjoined but were not aware of the risk of structure-borne noise disturbance, believing that triple-glazing on the new homes would address the the air-borne noise disturbance that they were aware of.
City council response
A spokesman for Norwich City Council said: “The city council followed all the correct procedures in this matter and can’t comment any further at this moment in time.”
Asked why triple-glazing was deemed to be sufficient sound insulation, and whether officers mistakenly believed there to be an air gap between the buildings, a spokesman said: “Officers never thought there was an air gap between the properties.
“The council always knew the properties were adjoined, but didn’t know how, so it wasn’t aware of the risk of structure-borne noise disturbance.
“The only noise issue it was aware of in the area was the air borne noise disturbance and this was addressed.”
Nightclub manager Toby Middleton said the authority should have spoken to someone at the club about the proposals, and that a letter through the door was not sufficient.
A council spokesman said: “The council’s contact about the matter wasn’t merely via a letter.
“The council also posted a site notice and put an advert in the press about the proposals.”
Since the office block in St Faith’s Lane was turned into homes, the council’s environmental health team has served Mercy with noise abatement notices to the tune of £80,000.
Mercy employs around 220 people across the business, with 35 of them full-time.
But Mr Middleton claims that mounting legal costs and the amount spent on sound-proofing work have pushed them to the brink.
He said that the club lost more than £200,000 in trade while it was closed for nine months for the re-design, that saw walls brought in and fitted with voids to try to keep sound in, work to the foundations and floors and new sound equipment installed.
But despite the club’s best efforts, the noise problems cannot be solved without a 1.5m air gap between the club and the homes - which would require the buildings to be separated, possibly involving demolition of one of the homes - number 16.
This is confirmed in a noise report commissioned by the city council - after it had already granted permission for the homes - seen by the Evening News following a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
In an FOI response, the authority said the report was commissioned after it was “alerted to the possibility of structure-borne noise disturbance”.
After receiving the report and realising the possible noise impact on the homes, the authority’s then head of planning wrote to the applicants - a building company - to state it would be “desireable” if the office block were not converted into homes until there was “a clear route identified to resolve this situation”.
But the builders ignored this plea and converted the offices into homes.
There is no suggestion that the builders acted improperly in doing so, and the project had planning permission.
Mr Middleton said that the situation had hit Mercy hard, and that he was instructing lawyers to bring a compensation claim against the city council, and to try to stop the residential use of the properties in St Faith’s Lane that are nearest the club - numbers 16 and 18.
The Evening News visited both properties this week and left messages seeking a response, but there was no reply at the time of going to press.
“Something’s got to change,” said Mr Middleton. “They [the city council] either help us, or there’s a very high probability Mercy could close - that’s it, board it up.
“[Nightclub owner Steve] Peri is a very generous, kind-hearted person, but there’s a point when you can’t take it any more.
“I just don’t want that to happen. If we lose, we lose everything.
“Do you want an eyesore of a building in Prince of Wales Road, boarded up?”
He said it felt like he was being “shafted” by both the council’s planning department and by its environmental health team.
“The hardest thing is to try to keep the business afloat when you’re getting beaten up by the local authority,” he said. “You can’t stop those heavy bass lines reverberating.
“When you’re fighting against several departments in the authority it’s tough.
“It’s a full-time job trying to appease people and show it’s not our fault.
“We’ve been fighting this for seven years and the night-time economy is hard at the best of times.
“But to be beaten with a stick every day for the last seven years... it’s demoralising and you lose faith.”
He said that the trade lost during the nine-month redesign of the club had been damaging.
“We’ve never really recovered from there,” said Mr Middleton. “We’ve been trying and trying.”
The row has already been to court over the noise abatement notices served on the club.
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Mercy nightclub’s alleged costs in the noise row:
Solicitors - £27,000 (to address licensing issues)
Barristers – £42,000
Builders – £110,000 (to fit acoustic walls and ceilings among other measures)
Acoustic engineer – £69,000 (to relocate amp room, rewiring and for new audio equipment)
Carpeting - £62,500 (including special acoustic underlay)
Structural engineer and building specialist - £75,000 (for underpinning work)
Electrician - £160,000 (to relocate sub main, distribution boards, sockets and lighting among other things)
Plumber - £55,000 (to fit new ladies and gents toilets, re-plumb main and stage bar and main sewage system)
Internal scaffolding for six months - £32,500
Upholstery - £49,000 (including drapes to help mitigate noise)
Carpentry - £89,000 (for new walls, furniture and cabinets)
Architects - £32,000 (for designs and CAD drawings)
Lost trade while club as closed for nine months for building work - estimated at more than £200,000
How did the row begin?
Details of the planning decision that led to the seven-year row between Mercy nightclub and the city council can be revealed following a Freedom of Information request.
The decision, on July 31, 2008, was made through delegated powers by planning officers as a spokesman said there were no objections to the application.
This was “in accordance with our standard procedures”, according to the authority.
Asked if officers had prepared a noise report before the decision was taken, a spokesman said: “It would have been highly unusual for the council to produce a noise report itself.
“The council could have requested one from the applicant but in the absence of any evidence of noise disturbance, other than from air-borne sources, it was not deemed necessary in order to determine the application as the issue of air-borne disturbance could be addressed by a planning condition” - this being triple-glazed rear windows on the homes.
But the spokesman added that “after planning approval was issued but prior to the conversion of 16 St Faith’s Lane commencing, the council was alerted to the possibility of structure-borne noise disturbance and commissioned its own noise report.”
This report said a 1.5m air gap was needed to address the noise pollution, so the council’s head of planning wrote to the applicants stating it would be “desireable” for them not to proceed with the conversion.
The applicants ignored this plea and proceeded with the conversion.
In a written judgment, in a 2011 appeal ruling over one of three noise abatement notices served on Mercy, a judge alleged that the issue “had been discussed at a senior level within the council on several occasions and issues such as the purchase of number 16 [St Faith’s Lane] have been considered”.
The judge added: “This was a problem waiting to happen in allowing a residence abutting a nightclub”.
But in the FOI response, a council spokesman said: “No compulsory purchase order was, or is, being considered.”
The spokesman added that planning permission was granted before the above court judgment, and before the authority knew of “any noise issues from Mercy other than air-borne”.
Asked whether compensation had ever been offered, the spokesman said: “We cannot comment on the legal issues above but can confirm that we have not offered any compensation to Mercy in relation to this matter.”