James Carson is a Research Officer for the Idox Information Service, providing insight into public and social policy and practice.


Licensing late night cities: a balancing act for local councils


In the second of three articles on licensing, James Carson from Idox looks at the impact that licensing laws are having on the night-time economy and the tactics other countries are using to create a thriving after-hours culture.

In 1991, a report by the Comedia consultancy painted an uninviting picture of twelve UK town centres. It described places that were largely deserted between 5pm and 6am, and besieged by gangs of ‘lager louts’ stalking the streets after closing time.

The authors raised concerns about the sustainability of Britain’s town centres, and called for the deregulation of licensing and planning laws to transform after-dark ghost towns into flourishing centres of night-time leisure and entertainment. Twenty-five years on, that vision of a vibrant, diverse after-hours culture has, for some UK towns and cities, become a reality. But the expansion of Britain’s night-time economy has also presented challenges for local licensing authorities.

The flowering of the night-time economy The Licensing Act 2003 and the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 have done much to change the face of Britain’s after-hours economy. The legislation gave local authorities new powers over licensed premises and abolished set licensing hours in an attempt to make the system more flexible. Subsequently, deregulation has seen an expansion of the night-time economy, which takes in a wide range of activities, from pubs and nightclubs to cinemas, theatres, and cultural events.

Across the UK, the value of the night-time economy is estimated to be in excess of £70 billion, and it’s believed to employ more than 1.3 million people. In London, an already thriving after-hours economy is set to grow by a further £77 million a year following last year’s launch of the 24-hour Tube on the Victoria, Central and Piccadilly lines.

The late-night sector can also add a new dimension to social and cultural life. 24-hour cities such as New York, Tel Aviv and Berlin are magnets for people with creative and technical talents, such as photographers, web developers, film-makers and DJs. Their paths may cross during working hours, but it’s often during night-time get-togethers that fresh ideas and collaborations are ignited.

The decimation of Britain’s nightclubs

The UK’s expanding night-time economy has increasingly been the focal point for claims and counter-claims about its impact on communities and businesses. In September 2016, Islington Council revoked its licence for Fabric, one of London’s biggest clubs, following two drug-related deaths. Islington’s licensing committee claimed that searches at the club were inadequate, and that there was a ‘culture of drugs’ at Fabric which management could not control.

Opponents of the closure argued that the licensing committee’s action was disproportionate, and over 150,000 people – including DJs Annie Mac, Pete Tong and Fatboy Slim, as well as the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan – signed a petition calling for Fabric to be reprieved.

After being given more stringent licence conditions, Fabric reopened in January 2017, with new security policies at the door and a welfare area inside the club. Other clubs, such as The Arches in Glasgow, haven’t been so fortunate.

Across the UK, there has been a spate of night-time venue closures. Figures published by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) in 2015 showed a ten-year fall in the number of clubs in the UK, from 3,144 to 1,733. Various factors, such as the smoking ban and the recession, have been suggested for the decline. But Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas think tank is one of a number of people to suggest that the wave of closures could be down to strict licensing laws.

Writing in the MJ local government magazine, Fox declared: “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.”

Striking a balance: the licensing authorities respond

Responding to Claire Fox’s claims, Councillor Simon Blackburn from the Local Government Association argued that venue closures had less to do with licensing laws and more with changes in society:

“…evidence from hospitality data experts such as MCA and Minitel has suggested that millennials drink less than other demographic groups, and are more likely to spend evenings in different environments to a bar or nightclub.”

But Councillor Blackburn also rejected the accusation that councils were being overzealous, noting that most licensing authorities had not taken up the wider legislative tools at their disposal, such as the Late Night Levy (a charge imposed on venues to fund additional policing), and Early Morning Restriction Orders (forcing licensed premises to close at 2am instead of 4am).

The rise of the night czar: a rebel and a negotiator

Clearly, local authorities have to protect communities from anti-social behaviour. But taking too hard a line towards areas with a reputation for trouble at night can threaten the existence of a dynamic night-time economy. When the New South Wales government introduced 1:30am lockouts and 3am last-drinks at nightclubs to crack down on alcohol-fuelled violence in parts of Sydney, the new rules had dramatic results in reducing street crime. However, the impact on Sydney’s night-time economy has been devastating. More than 100 venues have closed, and the once-booming entertainment district of King’s Cross experienced an 84% fall in foot traffic.

Elsewhere, different tactics are being deployed. In 2012, Marik Milan was elected Amsterdam’s first night mayor. His role is to bridge the competing interests of the city’s night-time stakeholders, including businesses, communities and the city council.

One of his early successes has been helping to establish 24-hour licences for selected nightclubs on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s hoped that the relaxation of licensing laws will help to relieve the pressure on the city centre, while regenerating pockets of the city lacking both daytime and night-time offerings.

Amsterdam’s strategy is now being adopted by the Mayor of London. In November, Sadiq Khan announced the appointment of broadcaster and DJ Amy Lamé as the city’s first Night Czar. Her role will be to engage with night-time businesses, residents and public authorities, and to create a “vision for London as a 24-hour city”.

In taking on a role that Marik Milan has described as requiring the skills of both a rebel and a negotiator, Amy Lamé’s challenges are considerable. But by adopting a fresh approach, London is showing that it’s ready to break out of the old way of thinking.

As Marik Milan observes: “Cities are always interested in solutions, but if they keep treating nightlife as a problem, they’ll keep having the same outcome.”


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