Could London really be a 24-hour city?

Fabric shuttered in September 2016. Image: Getty.

In 2016, concerned about drug-related deaths at clubs in London, councillors for the borough of Islington and the local police force revoked London super club and cultural institution Fabric’s license.

The debate attracted attention, partly because it was a microcosm of simmering tensions within cities between governments and the people whose lives they regulated, and partly because of the widespread public outcry from clubbers and DJs. At the time, in leaked emails obtained by Mixmag, Justine Simons, Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for culture, said that the row showed that London needed “a new positive vision around nightlife”.

In July of this year, Khan responded by launching a plan to make London a 24 hour city. The plan – created with the Night Time Commission, a body designed to examine the growth of the night time economy – promised to help London “compete with the likes of Berlin, Tokyo, and New York”. It laid out 10 principles such as promoting night time activities other than clubs, and attracting investment and tourism to an industry already worth £26.3bn.

An all-night London is not as farfetched as it sounds – the 2003 Licensing Act has already given local councils the ability to approve 24 hour licenses for venue.

But barely any councils in London have approved those requests. A 2013 review of the licencing act then found that 7,672 such licenses had been granted to venues around the UK. Only 12 per cent of those licenses were to pubs and clubs: 45 per cent of them had been granted to hotel bars, most of which were only open to guests.

And as recently as 2015, Hackney council designated the vibrant area of Dalston as a “Special Policy Area” (despite opposition from 84 per cent of residents) where no new bars or clubs will have late licenses approved, and already existing venues may have to starting closing at midnight on weekends. While Fabric eventually reopened its doors (with far stricter door protocol), local cuts, increasing disapproval from local councils and rising rents might stifle Khan’s vision of a 24 hour city. 

The introduction of the Night Tube at weekends was definitely a step in the right direction: it meant fewer nights out in central London finished at 11.30pm, as people rushed to get the last tube home. But as is increasingly obvious, there might not be much point in having a 24 hour tube if there’s nowhere open after 2am.

Khan and the Night Time Commission are obviously hoping that London will soon be able to stay up all night – but what would it look like in practice? In a feature with Resident Advisor in 2016, Alan Miller, who set up the groundbreaking Night Time Industries Association, pointed out that much of the conversation in Britain treats the night time economy as negative. He contrasted this with the way it’s discussed in other cultural capitals around the world, as “a benefit with revenue, employment and culture”.

In Amsterdam, night life venues are given  24-hour licenses to enable them to be restaurants, installation spaces and cafes by day. Such spaces are treated like a valuable commodity, as opposed to a strain on the city’s resources. In Berlin, clubs stay open for the whole weekend and licensing laws let you have a meal whenever you want, leading people to bring backpacks of clothes, a toothbrush and phone chargers on their nights out: many start with a beer at 6 pm and stay out all night, often for days at a time.

In London, venues like the Bussey Building / CLF Art Cafe could play a similar role – but these aren’t treated with the same value as their counterparts in other European cities, instead seen as a place for young people to indulge in hedonism and then leave.

But there are a whole host of practical reasons why 24 hour licensing might be a blessing. It might even make life easier for local police if there are staggered closing times for your local: part of the reason why the 2003 Licensing Act was introduced was in order to minimise public disruption, as drunk patrons all left pubs around the ripe old hour of 11pm.

More late licences might also mean an end to those days of wandering from a nice quiet pub down the high street until you find a bar that’s open later (generally one with a light up dance floor, a DJ spinning Katy Perry so loud you can’t hear, and a half an hour wait to get a pint).


Restaurants around London could benefit too; late night refreshment comes under the late license policy. Alan Miller pointed out in an article with Eater London that other cities around the world enable kitchens to stay open as late as 4 am.

Given the current state of London’s night time food, it’s almost painful to picture the possibilities if restaurants could stay open later – like good greasy pizza slices after you’ve had your last pint, or even vegan and vegetarian options that don’t amount to paying £4 for a pile of greasy chips because that’s all most places seem to have after a night out.

It could also mean that cultural events such as museum lates run by the Tate, which have seen a great uptick in interest, could run more frequently and for longer, making it possible to leave work or university, head to a Late with a friend, grab some food and then head out to go clubbing or grab a drink, without worrying about pubs closing or missing last entry.

Currently, Late events of that sort tend to run for a couple of hours after the normal working day, to stay within their local council’s late license regulations. July’s Art Night, run across different art spaces throughout one day and night this past July, was a successful example, and could be replicated across the city in the future.  

As shown by the furore over Fabric’s license, local police and regulators are often quick to pin the blame of individual instances onto the nightlife scene as a whole – the local police even had an undercover operation, known as Lenor, a reference to the fabric softener, which they used evidence from to argue that the club should be shut down. When the Act was enacted in 2005, many thought it would lead to increases in binge drinking, crime and disorderly behaviour – Miller pointed out that many of those feared outcomes actually didn’t happen.

This kind of overhaul is going to take more than just police forces, local councils and businesses learning to work together. There’s going to have to be a cultural shift too. “We have to break this late-night taboo that we have in London,” Dalston club owner Dan Beaumont told Resident Advisor. “We have to learn how to be permissive, because I think we've forgotten how to do it. And these cultural reserves are going to dry up if we don't invest in them.” 

 
 
 
 

You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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