No lights out for nights out

By Claire Fox | 06 September 2016
  • Claire Fox

This article was written shortly before Islington LBC's decision to revoke Fabric's license

By time you read this, I hope that Islington LBC will have seen sense and reprieved Fabric nightclub after suspending its license last month. What on earth were councillors thinking when they closed down such a beloved cultural institution?

DJ Sasha, proclaimed: ‘If Fabric goes, London would lose a jewel in its crown.’ This is part of a huge backlash. Celebrities such as DJs Annie Mac, Pete Tong, Carl Cox and Fatboy Slim, rapper Professor Green, the Chemical Brothers and over 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Islington councillors to reject police calls to shut the iconic venue.

The closure was prompted by the tragic drug-related deaths of two 18-year-olds at the club over the summer.

When Islington Police superintendent Stuart Ryan declared: ‘Fabric nightclub represents a serious risk to its patrons’ and the council then doffed its cap by denying a licence to the 2,500-capacity venue, it not only impugned the reputation of a well-run establishment but illustrated a broader wrong-headed and disproportionate attitude to night-time operators: should law abiding businesses be punished for the illegal or anti-social actions of their customers?

This approach is having a devastating impact on British nightlife; and its fun-busting enemies are sadly local councils armed with over-the-top regulations.

Well-known victims include Brick Lane’s Vibe Bar, Soho’s Madame Jojo’s and Vauxhall’s Club Colosseum. All have closed.

Forward Into The Night, a report published by the newly-formed Night-time Industry Association (NTIA) estimates half of Britain’s nightclubs have shut down over the past decade.

London mayor Sadiq Khan is so concerned he is appointing a ‘night mayor’ to champion the nocturnal economy. His predecessor was so worried that he set up the Night Time Commission to make recommendations on how to ‘protect and manage the night-time economy’. Even in the months since Mr Khan took office, popular destinations such as Shapes, Passing Clouds, The Silver Bullet and Dance Tunnel have permanently closed.

This decimation is often due to decisions made by licence boards and overly strict licensing laws: it takes just one noise complaint to trigger a review by local councils; the number of licence conditions can exceed over 100 for a single venue.

And despite growing evidence that alcohol consumption has dropped by 26% in licenced premises and is down 17% overall since the Licensing Act came into effect in 2003, councils and the police constantly talk up the problems of night-time venues, insisting proprietors enforce ‘zero tolerance’ of any drug and alcohol-related anti-social disorder (loosely defined).

Clubs are forced to implement stringent and expensive security measures on threat of losing their licence.

When The Arches in Glasgow was forced to close last year after having its license reviewed and its closing time reduced to midnight, the city lost an important cultural art venue subsidised by its lucrative nightclub.

Ironically, this is all happening just when there is much hype about initiatives such as the recent launch of 24-hour weekend Night Tube turning London and other UK metropolises into thriving 24-hour cities fit to compete with New York, Berlin and Tokyo.

The night-time economy generates annual revenue in excess of £66bn. Shouldn’t local authorities be major cheerleaders for the #NightlifeMatters campaign, rather than creating a hostile regulatory environment for so many businesses?

The night time economy provides 8% of employment in the UK, employing 1.3 million people in hospitality and entertainment.

Venues represented by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers generated 37,000 new jobs last year, with over 80% for people aged between 18 and 24.

In July, the Local Government Information Unit and Portman Group published Building a vibrant night time economy which talked about how thriving night-time industry boosts local businesses by attracting visitors from out of town to spend money in the centre.

The report also describes how if an area has a diverse range of nightlife options ‘young people are more likely to stick around after they finish their education, preventing a “brain drain” in the local workforce’.

Beyond these pragmatic reasons, the NTIA’s Alan D Miller is keen to stress the social gains of an industry primarily concerned with creating an enjoyable environment for the millions who go out every week for a good time.

For all councils, rapidly-gaining a reputation as zealous puritans over-policing punters for daring to have fun, remember the viral story which cheered the nation up about an elderly Polish couple who went clubbing at Fabric until 5am and were offered free drinks and tequila shots by the DJ.

That sort of night-time revelry is something you should be championing, not closing down through joyless over-regulation.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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