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.”