On Friday 19 August, London Underground will run its first night tube services as the capital congratulates itself on becoming the nation’s first 24-hour city. But while the Mayor’s office is intent on running trains for the city’s night owls, the rest of local government seems determined to tuck them up in bed. In the past 10 years, a savage assault on our nightlife has caused 40 per cent of London’s music venues to close. Those that are left face a constant struggle to retain a late license.
George Hull, Mark Wilding and Kevin Dunning on the 24-hour tube:
Tonight, if you trek into the city, you’ll be sorely disappointed if you expect to enjoy a late-night drink. Even edgy Shoreditch is dry as a bone by 1am. Perversely, if you really want a night on the town, you must get as far away from the centre as possible. The outer reaches of the city – areas such as Greenwich and Hackney Wick – are home to some of London’s last late licensed venues. But if you’re seeking proper debauchery, you need to head much further - to Heathrow or Stansted. Dubbed the 'easyjetset', thousands now fly off every weekend to party in Amsterdam, Paris or Berlin – and who could blame them?
Last year, the council for the East London borough of Hackney published its draft licensing guidelines – which might as well have been written by the temperance movement. Councillors claimed that the category 'nightclub' was 'not considered appropriate' for the borough, and that midnight was to be its latest licensed kick-out time. Presumably the concern was that on the stroke of twelve, Hackney carriages might turn into pumpkins.
The tragic irony of this proposal was that among all of London’s contemporary regeneration success stories, Hackney is the borough that has benefitted most from its nighttime economy. Just as the historic slums of Soho and Chelsea were transformed by the artists and writers who moved in and spent all their money at pubs, cafes and bars, creative entrepreneurs and tech startups migrated to East London first because it was cheap and then because it was cool. Hackney’s tale of regeneration was due in no small part to its reputation for hedonism.
Flats are now far too pricey for their owners to tolerate drinkers making noise. A legislative presumption in favour of residential development means that once a block of flats has been whipped up next door, music venues plunge into crisis. Noise complaints from residents of new build apartments are a trump card in the council's eyes, no matter how long the noise creating business has been trading. The George Tavern in Stepney Green, an honest boozer since 1624, is appealing residential planning permission on an adjacent site that would preclude its 3am dancing license. James Palumbo reportedly sank £1m into legal expenses to protect his Ministry of Sound super club from complaints arising from luxury apartments being built outside its front door.
And this scenario has been replicated across the UK. Breathalysers have been introduced on the doors of many provincial night spots while several JD Wetherspoon pubs in London use door machines to scan and record patrons’ identification. In Cambridge, a teacher was denied entry to a McDonald’s when a breathalyser test by police-sanctioned bouncers found him over the limit after three pints at a horse race. In an effort to stave off stag and hen dos, Blackpool council has moved to ban them from the town. I have no particular fondness for the inflatable penis but have to ask - can this really be the most pressing matter on their desks? And more to the point, is it really wise?
When Boris Johnson was in City Hall he created a role that has existed for many years in Amsterdam – a night mayor (apparently he asked if their offices were to be on Elm Street). To his credit, Sadiq Khan made a manifesto pledge to continue with Boris’s project, prudently renaming the position ‘night czar’. He is also seeking to redress the balance in planning cases with the introduction of a policy borrowed from Australia and Canada: the ‘agent of change’ in a development scenario will be made to accept mandatory responsibility to solve issues surrounding noise from existing premises.
Of course, just as pubs and clubs have a duty to be considerate and proactive in relations with their neighbours, local authorities have a democratic mandate to interpret planning and licensing law to represent the interests of their constituents. But Hackney council’s Cinderella moment has made it plain that they are also accountable to the silent majority - those Londoners who actually want the city to have a beating heart. As we congratulate ourselves for running the tube all night, we must guarantee there are at least some revellers still out to fill the carriages.
George Hull is a rave promoter, who co-founded the Bloc music festival. He tweets @georgehull303