The decline of London’s nightlife: who blighted the night?

In the first day of our series, Who Blighted the Night? We discuss how nightlife is under threat. Estimates from the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) suggest the number of nightclubs in the capital has almost halved over the last decade.

The closure and subsequent reopening of London super-club Fabric after an impassioned campaign flung the future of UK nightlife into the public consciousness, so why are we losing so many of our night-time venues?

Click here to see our interactive map of club closures across the ELL area.

Never has action been more urgent, and in November newly elected Mayor Sadiq Khan appointed Amy Lamé as London’s first Night Czar, a post adopted from European nightlife hotspots Berlin and Amsterdam.  

But before looking to the future, we need to look at how we ended up here. So why have so many clubs shut their doors in recent years? Who has blighted the night?

The list of reasons is long: noise complaints, planning and licensing restrictions, economic difficulties, fears about criminality, gentrification and redevelopment.

The night-time economy is a battleground of a wide array of issues, as disparate sections of society collide: ravers and residents; clubbers, coppers and councils.

Cops and clubbers

Only after a huge public campaigns was Fabric able to reopen under new restrictions. Pic: Mind Your Step Studios

Operation Condor was used by the Metropolitan Police in 2012 to crack down on over 5000 licensed premises across the capital. There were mass raids on venues looking for breaches of licensing rules and hundreds of arrests were made. In December 2012, 93 Feet East had its license revoked after 9 arrests were made for drug offences. The Brick Lane club reopened five months later after an appeal.

Operation Lenor followed, which sought to target Fabric, even though it was subject to some of the tightest regulations in the capital.

According to Dalston Superstore’s Dan Beaumont, this is nothing new: “People are scared of the night. As far back as the 90s and beyond, there has always been a cloud of suspicion surrounding what goes on at night, and that tension is always going to be there.”

Public Life had its license revoked by Tower Hamlets Council in 2012, after a long campaign to save it led by the local community failed. The former public toilet was found to be exceeding its legal capacity of 60, and there were a number of arrests for drug offences.

Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, which was established in 2014 to protect grassroots music venues, told Eastlondonlines: “The outcome with Fabric was a result of the fact that the Licensing Act is not fit for purpose and entirely punitive.”

“The issue with the Licensing Act is use of illegal or what are to be considered dangerous substances by individuals. We feel, along with many other organisations like the NTIA, that too much responsibility for the behaviour of individuals is placed upon the owners of premises.”

But even when measures are taken by premises to combat crime and antisocial behaviour, a negative attitude towards nightlife remains.

Davyd said: “At some point it was decided that staying up late, dancing and having fun was a terrible thing to do and we haven’t really corrected that.”

Angry Residents and Local Councils

Vibe Bar on Brick Lane closed in 2014. Pic: Google street view

The revoking of Fabric’s license in 2016 after two drug deaths is symbolic of the attitude towards nightlife as a hotbed of nuisance and criminality.  

Tower Hamlets and Hackney boast some of the capital’s most vibrant nightlife districts, but clubs are falling foul simply for existing within densely populated residential areas.

Plastic People closed in January 2015 after 20 years of influencing London club culture, moving from Oxford Circus to Shoreditch in 2000. In 2010, Hackney Council reviewed their premises license because of “nuisance and criminal activity.” A passionate local campaign managed to keep the club open, but it was saddled with strict layout and noise level restrictions. 

Andy Peyton, owner of Shoreditch’s XOYO, which remains open, told Resident Advisor: “Every single change, every single licensing implementation leads to a cost. And it rules out the existence of a lot of venues.” 

Brick Lane’s Vibe Bar closed after 20 years in 2014, because of increased issues with acquiring Temporary Event Notices (TEN) allowing the bar to be open after 1 am. Before its closure, the premises was forced by the Met to introduce ID scanners, a curfew on their courtyard, and a pilot scheme requiring clubs to breathalyse punters on entry. Owner Alan Miller now campaigns for the protection of clubs as chairman of the NTIA.

Hackney’s Dance Tunnel suffered economically since it could not get the later permanent license it needed, lamenting the “licensing climate,” as they closed in 2016.

A reason for these limitations is that Dalston is one of London’s Special Policy Areas (SPA), which means the number of clubs open until 6am is restricted through rationed TEN and the granting of licenses to new premises is limited. There has not been a license given to new venues in Shoreditch or Dalston since the SPAs were imposed.

Dance Tunnel ex-owner Beaumont said: “In Hackney, the night time economy just appeared suddenly with no planning, after developing organically in an underground way. It all just sprang up and a lot of mistakes were made, as developers sold living in ‘buzzy Dalston’, but didn’t take into account what it’s like living next to a night time economy.”

Chair of Hackney Council’s Licensing Committee, Emma Plouviez, said the SPA was introduced after pressure from local residents regarding noise and anti-social behaviour, and the huge costs of policing and clearing up litter.

She maintains, however, that there have been no closures in Hackney caused by the council for a very long time, and that they strive to keep night-time venues open.

Theo Williams from Reckoning Projects, a new think tank that supports nightlife, said: “There’s a disconnect between the people who make the policy and the people who experience it.”

However, Plouviez disagrees: “We’ve done an enormous amount of consulting people. Hackney is one of the most densely populated boroughs in London. It goes on being a feature of complaint that people get woken up by noisy people in the street who have been drinking. It’s a very big area of concern for people.”

With limited power and increasingly diminishing funding, and regardless of any particular motive, councils are far from the only party with influence over night-time venues.

Property Developers

Passing Clouds’ terrible transformation in 2016. Pic: Google street view

People flock to areas home to vibrant nightlife. But so do developers.

Passing Clouds is the latest venue to fight for its life, after property developers Landhold bought the Dalston club in 2015. A long legal battle resulted in developers evicting the occupants, who have appealed against this.

The public campaign by local people striving to prevent the closure was handed a boost by Hackney Council in September, when the club was given the status of an Asset of Community Value, but its future remains in the balance.

In January the developers agreed to consider an offer from Passing Clouds to buy back the building, so they are currently trying to raise the money. 

The owners “fully anticipate returning to our beloved mothership in 2017”.

Plouviez told Eastlondonlines: “We’ve done an enormous amount to keep Passing Clouds open. The owner of the property sold it to a developer who then wanted them out. He’s not a great guy.”

Plouviez says the council have supported them in a number of ways, and the club could still reopen, but it seems to have fallen victim to something it helped create: Dalston becoming a more desirable, culturally thriving place to live.

Major clubs including Ministry of Sound and Corsica Studios in Elephant and Castle have been threatened by redevelopments, but others haven’t been so lucky.

Papermill and The Light have both fallen victim of  the corporate world spilling from The City into Shoreditch.

Changing tastes and rising costs

Shoreditch’s Papermill made way for a huge redevelopment. Pic: Google street view

The clubs that do survive are raising drink prices, partly due to rising rents, partly because they can; but new evidence (from Village Underground) shows people only spend, on average, £6 in some clubs.

Drinking in licensed premises has dropped 17% overall since the Licensing Act came into effect in 2003 and the proportion of those aged 16-24 who are teetotal increased by more than 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But nightclubs owners continue to complain to councils about the high density of 24-hour off-licenses which they feel are undercutting their takings on the bar.

Nonetheless, the rising cost of living is pushing young people, most of whose incomes have stagnated, further south-east or west as they grumble at growing intergenerational disparities. Undoubtedly, people are forced to go out less frequently than they once did.

During this same period, Londoners tastes’ have changed drastically in this rapidly evolving city. Local Data Company nationwide figures, analysed by the BBC, show between 2011-16, the number of town-centre bars, pubs and night clubs fell by about 2,000 as cafes and restaurants rose by 8 per cent. The trends for London are similar.

It’s now largely the DJ, rather than the club, who has the greater pull, and strict licensing restrictions mean promoters outnumber clubs like never before.

There are other economic factors blighting night-time venues, such as skyrocketing rents and business rates. In a Boiler Room discussion, Fabric co-founder, Cameron Leslie, proclaimed the economic model for owning a club in London not to be viable: “I question whether big clubs in London have a place going forward.”

Tiger Tiger, although not known for pioneering club culture, was a landmark of Croydon’s nightlife, but shut in January 2016 because of high rent and declining footfall. Beyond all the closures, there has been a high turnover of bars and clubs, particularly north of the river in Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

The revaluation of business rates could have grave consequences for smaller venues: “On average venues will have to pay between 35 and 55% extra,” warned Davyd from the Music Venue Trust, who are calling for their urgent review.

The Macbeth of Hoxton is facing a 600% increase in its rateable value in changes to business rates which will equate to an extra £20,000 – double what they are currently paying. A spokesman said: “Coupled with high rents, the business wouldn’t be able to cope.”

It’s becoming less and less feasible for businesses, and owners Armand Wysocki and Melanie Liebenhals fear that as night-time venues close, London’s high streets will be left full of chains and residential properties.

The business rates revaluation haven’t yet been rolled out, but are likely to hit bars and clubs hard as they are based on the value of the property rather than the value of the business.

Despite all these problems, it is too simplistic to see the future of nightlife as a battle between warring factions of clubbers and councils, as the night-time economy is subject to so many different factors: Licensing restrictions, police policy and attitudes towards crime, issues surrounding development and housing, spiralling rents and changing consumer habits.

Nightclubs are where all these complex issues come to a head – particularly in London. Acknowledging this fact is the first step to protecting the future of UK nightlife.

This article is part of a series on London’s nightlife called Who Blighted the Night?  Tomorrow we will  focus on why nightlife matters, including a video documenting how clubs changed Hackney, and an interactive timeline exploring the history of London club culture.

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