Sadiq Khan wanted to make London a "24-hour-city." As clubs close, is the dream over?by / September 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Last year, Sadiq Khan unveiled a plan to “create a life at night that works for everyone.” The mayor’s vision of London as a “24-hour city” would mean later opening hours for museums and theatres, supermarkets open after an evening shift ends, and more transport options around the clock, with several Tube lines open overnight at weekends. But at the heart of his plans was a promise to protect nightlife—the music venues, pubs and clubs that make London what it is.
To after-hours music enthusiasts, Khan seemed to be promising welcome relief. The capital had lost around half its clubs over the previous decade, as zealous policing and gentrification took its toll. But anyone who has followed the politics of nightlife for any length of time knows to treat promises from the authorities warily.
In 2005, with much fanfare, the Blair government had promised to relax Britain’s decidedly strict licensing hours, in the expectation (or hope) that this would usher in what ministers quaintly called a continental-style 24-hour café culture. In the event, what they achieved instead was so much media-inspired panic about binge-drinking that local authorities made only limited use of the new licensing flexibility, and little changed.
But a dozen years on, rates of harmful drinking among the young are in sharp decline, so the mood should have been different, and the opportunity greater; London had a chance to give the other cities of Britain a lead. But it all depended on what—practically—the mayor was going to do.
Khan’s big idea was to appoint the city’s first “night czar,” a part-time advocate paid by the city to fight for its pubs and clubs. Amy Lamé, a comedian, performer and television presenter—who now also presents a weekly show on BBC Radio 6 Music—was given the role. So impressed was Khan with Lamé’s first year in the job that he made the post full-time, upping her salary to £75,000.
But while City Hall may be happy, people in the industries Lamé is supposed to be promoting seem less enamoured. Many of the “successes” she has touted—like the reopening of the “superclub” Fabric and the scrapping of a form that police had used to prevent grime nights—were, say her critics, nothing to do with her.
Now, a row over licensing in Dalston, one of London’s most popular nightspots, has shone a fresh light on Lamé’s role—and raised new questions about London’s claim to be a 24-hour city.
A night in Dalston
Clubs are places that provide moments of wildness, solace, and freedom. It’s important that various communities—different classes, races, sexualities, subcultures—have a space in the city where they can feel that way. A small bar in Brixton that plays trance until 8am, or a grime rave raging in east London, may not be to everyone’s tastes but they are integral to the culture—and vibrancy—of a city.
And it’s not only the young who are affected by that. Even those who have never stepped into a club—or hung up their dancing shoes many years ago—eventually reap the benefits of an affordable and diverse nightlife. New musicians can’t begin developing their careers in the hopes of becoming major stars if they don’t have smaller, accessible stages to perform on, or underground DJs to spin their tunes in basements.
The London that needs protecting today is the same London that nurtured the punk scene down the Kings Road; the city where David Bowie played his first show in Soho in 1964 to a tiny crowd; where the Stones played at the Marquee in 1971.
Dalston, where the latest fight over nightlife is taking place, is a district in Hackney in East London. As the home to a creative generation that included some of the Young British Artists, it is an iconic battleground. Helped along by the allure of such an artistic legacy, along with local institutions such as the Arcola theatre, Rio cinema, and, of course, the nightclubs, it came to be seen as a desirable place for young creatives to live.
And that, inevitably, spurred on its gentrification: the neighbourhood has seen a 700 per cent increase in house prices in 20 years as it has transformed from a poorer area into a much more middle-class neighbourhood, crowding out many of those who grew up there.
When longstanding and beloved basement bars The Alibi and Visions announced their closure at the tail-end of August 2018, locals mourned not only these two specific venues, but an area that was becoming blander as well as more bourgeois. In the midst of a part of the city increasingly dominated by pricey restaurants, cocktail bars and M&S food halls, these clubs represented accessibility and a sense of belonging for young people who increasingly had nowhere to go.
DJ and clubber Dana Hurley is only 22, but she is already nostalgic. She remembers The Alibi as one of the few spaces she could have a cheap, easy night out in Dalston. “It was where me and my mates could come and have a good time, without the worry of ‘have I got enough money for this?’” she says.
It’s not only an issue of affordability, but also one of taste and culture. Nearly 30 per cent of Dalston residents are still in their 20s, and over 17 per cent are black British—it’s a young, diverse area that wants a young, diverse nightlife. For 23-year-old Moya Lothian-McClean, Visions was one of the few clubs in the area that celebrated black music authentically.
“Visions was one of the first clubs I discovered that really felt totally me. Often it felt like if you wanted to hear R&B you’d have to go to some horrible Shoreditch cocktail bar with terrible people. Visions was the rare club that was cool, not stuffed with off-duty bankers in their chinos, but actually played black music like grime.”
Despite the hunger for what they do, these clubs are unlikely to be replaced. In July, Hackney Council approved plans to restrict new venues opening in the area to a closing time of 11pm on weekdays, and midnight at weekends, while also simultaneously making it harder for new venues in the area to get licences.
The decision was one made in apparent defiance of the general public’s wishes: the council’s own survey of local residents found that 84 per cent of respondents were against the move. The council pleads that these measures have been nonetheless taken in the interest of local residents, with the aim of tackling anti-social behaviour at night.
It believes they have a “silent majority” on its side, though with the consultation suggesting that Dalstonites who are more interested in quiet than in lively nights are in the small minority, what basis they have for claiming this is unclear.
Such strictures paint a joyless picture of the borough. Andy Peyton is an ex-director at Colombo Group, the events company that owns clubs that play house and techno across London. The latest move by Hackney, in his eyes, is a “silly decision”—one that he notes won’t affect existing businesses, but will make it tough for venues that close to be replaced.
“The impact isn’t immediate,” he says. “The impact is the message it sends to nightlife entrepreneurs—that message is ‘find another profession, or find another city.’” Forget Johnson’s celebrated line that being tired of London means being tired of life; it would instead seem that London is too tired to deal with life after dark.
Elijah is one half of the DJ duo Elijah & Skilliam, who have been throwing parties in London for the best part of a decade. They are a staple of the grime scene: a black British genre of music that blends fast-paced MC-ing with 140bpm productions, grime has in recent years gone from a grassroots London movement to become a global phenomenon.
Just as there might never have been a Beatles without the Cavern Club, this British musical export would never have come into being without clubs in which it could be tried and tested. And Elijah exactly echoes Peyton’s read of the Dalston situation. “Nobody will start a new business of that kind in that area.”
As business becomes more difficult, entry prices go up. Both the crowds and performers inside venues are likely to become whiter and richer, as policy and property prices drive out other communities.
“I know how hard this city is on people, and how much free and cheap stuff is a sanctuary for a lot of people that work very hard just to survive here,” he says. The message being received by the nightlife scene is that there is no place for smaller, cheaper, edgier and perhaps messier venues in London any more.
“There can’t be an inclusivity or diversity conversation without talking about how restrictive price is for a lot of people to see great DJs.”
“What is the point in you?”
How does this message sit alongside the promises made by City Hall in 2017? Khan’s vision predicted that London would become a “trailblazing city at night, competing with the likes of Berlin, Tokyo and New York.” This vision, crucially, stressed that this night-time culture must “serve the needs of all Londoners.”
Core to Sadiq Khan’s plan was Philip Kolvin, chair of the Night Time Commission, as well as Night Czar Lamé. Kolvin was appointed to the role in 2017 because of his expertise in licensing. However, he stepped down in January 2018, claiming that the commission had neither the freedom, nor the support, to achieve its aims.
In a letter leaked to the Evening Standard, Kolvin said that the team tasked with executing Khan’s 24-hour vision lacked administrative support, and that “minimal” work had been done to convey the plan to the public. He wrote, “I regret that I cannot allow my professional independence to be compromised… Nor can I serve on a commission which lacks independence.”
Lamé’s independence, too, has been called into question. Throughout the debate in Hackney, which lasted several months, Lamé was publicly silent. When the decision was made, she responded with a bland tweet, merely stating that “local authorities are responsible for licensing decisions.” London’s night czar, it appeared, had no view on a major decision over the city’s nightlife.
The response from the nightlife industry and those who go to clubs and bars was fierce. Music publication the NME didn’t mess around: “Amy Lamé, what is the fucking point in you?” it asked.
Lamé suddenly decided she had a view after all, “demanding an urgent meeting” with Hackney’s mayor, Philip Glanville. He then publicly—and painfully—pointed out that Lamé had been involved throughout the consultation process and had not raised any concerns with him.
The cumulative effect of these statements, with major power players in City Hall constantly buck-passing and hand-flapping, is to instil Londoners who already felt pessimistic about clubs with a new fear: that those who promised to champion the city’s nightlife are actually either powerless, or complicit, in its demise.
Additionally, Khan’s 24-hour vision, rather than providing any sort of answer to the closing clubs, seems to be more of a problem in itself. Claiming that London can match Berlin or New York for their nightlife is an exciting, quotable promise—but as Peyton suggests, club owners will not actually view London as a global nightlife leader if they see the likes of Hackney imposing tighter restrictions than ever.
The row also highlights the challenges London’s mayor has in terms of power. Khan is facing the same problems his two posturing predecessors came up against—he may be the famous name, he may have the fancy title, but unlike his counterpart in, say, New York, he has only limited control over the purse strings and many other powers.
London’s 32 boroughs still hold huge sway over the day-to-day decisions affecting the city. And their focus is inevitably more parochial; they are simply not set up in a way that encourages them to dream of a vision of London as a whole as a global city.
In Berlin however, in sharp contrast, local authorities invest in nightlife. In December 2017, city representatives approved a €1m fund, from taxpayers’ money, to go towards soundproofing and other noise reduction measures. This plan was designed to incubate the techno nightlife that exists there, while protecting growing local communities from its effects.
An urban legend
It’s not only nightlife business owners who are feeling shut out of Khan’s vision for London. The message is trickling down to the young people who moved to the city for its culture, and who are questioning whether they are part of its future. The capital is full of artists, thinkers, and—yes—hedonists who want to share new cultural ideas—but increasingly, they’re being given the message that they should take them elsewhere.
“It feels like the nightlife London was famous for is just an urban legend,” says Lothian-McClean. “I feel scared,” says Hurley. “Especially as a regular clubber, as a DJ who doesn’t play commercial tracks, and a new promoter too.” She worries that before long, Dalston nightlife “is going to all look and feel the same. I want to be hopeful, but we haven’t been given anything to be hopeful for.”
A year on from Khan’s grand unveiling of his plan to bring London alive at night, the Tube lines are running 24 hours per day, but the options of where you could catch the Tube to after dark are narrowing. As more clubs close their doors for good, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that his vision is not truly of a nightlife that “works for everyone”—rather, it only protects the interests of a privileged few.