Britain’s night time economy is booming. So why isn’t the restaurant trade making the most of it?

Eat up. Image: Getty.

For a long time, theatre was the favourite pastime of British city-dwellers – but curtain calls at The Globe and other open-air Elizabethan theatres happened once a day, exclusively during the daylight hours.

Today it is a totally different story. Cities have the economic power and infrastructure to keep the night-time economy alive. Electric street lighting made night-time travel safe, and later paved the way for bars, clubs, theatre outings and a whole range of other late-night activities.

Nightlife is alive and well in London, where theatreland is still flooded with people up until midnight, and even South Kensington’s museums attract visitors late at night. Last summer, what’s more, the night-tube boosted spending and earning considerably across the suburbs serviced by 24-hour tube. The night-time economy seems to be in good shape, and London is said to be catching up with New York, Berlin, Sydney, Barcelona and Singapore.

In financial terms, London First estimates that improvements to transport will make the night-time economy worth up to £17bn per year in the capital, supporting 700,000 jobs. London mayor Sadiq Khan has already appointed a “night czar”, Amy Lamé, to make sure we reap all the benefits of night time trade. Meanwhile the rest of the country enjoys a night-time economy worth £66bn, according to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers’ Late Night Manifesto.

But are we where we should be? Arguably, Britain is still far behind. It has long been a complaint that food choices are scant after midnight in Europe. This is no longer just a practical complaint; it’s holding back the rest of the night-time economy at a time of great opportunity.

Across the UK, the last month saw a 6.8 per cent rise in spending year-on-year on recreation and culture. This was followed closely by the restaurant and bars sector, where spending rose 6 per cent, according to Visa’s Consumer Spending Index. These figures rose faster than those for any other industry, showing that restaurants are the first to see revenue rise when consumers have more money to spend. It is important the restaurant industry grows to meet demand: it is the first place people go to spend money.

However, the benefits of the night-time economy are not yet passing into the restaurant trade.  Restaurants’ doors are still only open until midnight at the latest in most parts of the UK. We are currently failing to tap into the same trends in late-night eating as the rest of the world.

Throughout the world, pop-up restaurants and street food are supporting the night-economy’s diet. Britain attracts culinary talent from throughout the world. Britain’s food and drink industry develops 16,000 new products every year, and London is known as the world’s culinary capital. The night market should be seen as a stage for new ideas that have not been tried on the streets of Britain yet.

Restaurants are also suffering from a shortage of skilled staff, partly caused by the introduction of visa policies that make it difficult for workers with culinary skills to come to the UK from abroad. Curry houses, Chinese restaurants and other ethnic cuisines remain very popular, but visa rules should be relaxed in order for the industry to grow.

Often, restaurants’ potential customers are retreating to their sofas and beds where on-demand television and social media can keep them occupied through the night while others are enjoying the nightlife. Visa data shows that e-commerce is also up by 6 per cent year-on-year in the past month. Barclays research has found that online purchasing and browsing peaks in the two hours before midnight and doesn’t drop off until 3am. Shouldn’t the restaurant industry be picking up a greater share of night-time spending activity in Britain?

A global city like London has a packed calendar of cultural celebrations and, from August’s Notting Hill Carnival to this weekend’s Food and Curry festival on Brick Lane, they are great ways to satisfy your appetite to find new flavours. There are plenty of reasons to leave the house – but not all of them favour the night-time economy.

And the night-time economy is not just an extension of the day’s business into the late hours: it’s a chance to do things differently. The night also offers an opportunity to double our flavour palate. World festivals, like Diwali, should give us ways to swiftly open up London’s market of night-time food trading, fusing food and drink from across cultures.

We should tap into areas of high footfall and take advantage of consumers’ changing tastes. British cities have the skills and creativity to muscle in and there is no shortage of culinary entrepreneurs to make Britain an around-the-clock culinary centre.

We are an international nation and a globally-competitive economy. But we have not seen the very best of Britain’s nightlife just yet.

Lord Bilimoria is the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, and the founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council. 

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Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.


It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).

Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.