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.” 

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”