As another London club closes, Amsterdam shows why we need a “night mayor”

A DJ at work – albeit in Singapore, not Amsterdam or London. Image: Getty.

If you like going dancing in London, you’ve probably heard the bad news already. Dance Tunnel, the intimate Dalston club that has hosted DJs like Prosumer, Tama Sumo and Ben UFO, will close in August.

In an announcement on Facebook, the club said that “the licensing climate in Hackney has made it impossible for us to get the hours we need to make Dance Tunnel sustainable in the long term”.

Their problem is that te club fills up at midnight, and its license only extends to 3am – and three hours of bar take isn’t paying the bills. (The door money usually goes to outside promoters.) A 5am license would allow it to earn enough to continue; but aside from occasionally using Temporary Event Notices (TENs), which are difficult to come by in Dalston’s Special Policy Area, that’s just not going to happen.

At first glance, this seems like a cut-and-dried case of a local council putting their foot down on a thriving, well-regulated business that brings worldwide renown to their borough, whilst paying business rates and employing young people. But it might not be as simple as that: Hackney council released its own statement, defending the decision and noting that Dance Tunnel “has not applied to extend their opening hours for over two years”.

The club then issued another statement, in which it said that its “future lies elsewhere” – and that it would “look further afield to find a space where we are subject to fewer compromises”. So it looks like they’ve decided to pick another battle – or at least another battlefield.

Dance Tunnel is just a 200-capacity venue – but news of its closure was trending on Twitter within hours and was even covered by the BBC. More is at stake here than just a few clubbers’ good times (though one wonders where Hackney Council thinks these people will go, if they keep losing legal venues to party in). The recent spate of club closures are an attack on exactly the kind of entrepreneurship London should be encouraging.

One possible solution to the problem – one the mayor’s office got behind late last year, via a recommendation by the Music Venues Taskforce – is to create a “nightlife champion”. This could be an individual (a “night mayor”); or a committee, like the Club Commission at work in Berlin.

Alan Miller is chair of the Night Time Industry Association (NTIA), a lobbying group established last year. He argues that such a group could “act as a conduit between business and policymakers, and understand the cultural ramifications, as well as the economic benefits, of what happens in nightlife.

“There’s a big gap of understanding in Britain and especially in London about the cultural, economic and social benefits of nightlife,” he continues. “It’s not only about national insurance, business rates, employment and generating 6 per cent of Britain’s GDP – I’m talking about ourselves as a brand, how we find artists like Adele and Tinie Tempah and Mark Ronson, but also somewhere people get inspired by new fashion trends, art, or by tech.”

In Amsterdam, night mayor Mirik Milan – formery a club promoter of 10 years’ standing – has been in office since 2012 (the year Dance Tunnel opened). He heads an independent, non-profit foundation, whose job is to ensure the city’s nightlife remains dynamic. Last year, he told Time Out what that means:

“We try to build bridges between the mayor and city council, small business owners like nightclubs, venues and promoters and city residents. Nightlife is a world which is difficult to penetrate, and I always say: ‘How can you maintain a culture if you don’t have any clue what’s going on?’”

Milan’s biggest success has been the introduction of 24-hour licenses – for example at De School, the new venue from the group behind Trouw, which closed last year. As he told Time Out, “Clubs benefit from it because they can go on longer, and the surrounding neighbourhood benefits because it’s not like at four in the morning a thousand people suddenly hit the street, all at once.”

Amsterdam’s new 24-hour venues are mainly out of town – unlike London’s venues, which often exist in increasingly residential neighbourhoods. (The Music Venues Trust has recently won a big legislative victory here.)


But the Dutch example can still be of relevance. Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein, an area which Milan likens to Leicester Square, is now part of a three-year pilot project to reduce the 300 odd violent incidents that were formerly reported each year. This involves taking an approach more like running a music festival: “There you’ll have, like, 20,000 people,” Milan told the Guardian last month. “Maybe two get pick-pocketed, and there’s one fight. It’s because you have easy-on, easy-off access, clear routes around the site, a programme and rules that everyone knows and understands, soft security … Basically, a pleasant environment.”In other words, Amsterdam treats nightlife destinations as events – and the people in them as informed participants, not potential criminals.

The mayor’s Night Time Commission is still looking into what can be done to save London’s battered but unbowed night time culture. It’s due to report its findings in the autumn, after a six-month study that was announced in March.

Those findings can’t come soon enough. As Miles Simpson – promoter of Thunder, one of Dance Tunnel’s most popular events – points out, just because there aren’t legal parties on offer, that doesn’t mean that people will just go home quietly.

Venues like Dance Tunnel are “professionally run by people dedicated to delivering a high quality and safe environment where people can enjoy themselves,” he says. But legal restrictions mean they are getting “squeezed out of existence, leaving people to party in dangerous, unlicensed firetraps, in shop basements and disused warehouses.

“It’s a sad loss to London nightlife, but it certainly isn’t the first in recent times,” he adds. “And I fear it won’t be the last either.”

 
 
 
 

What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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