Fear and Loathing on Mare Street: what Hackney’s licensing dispute says about its attitude to nightlife

Shoreditch by night. Image: Getty.

I was somewhere around Mare Street in Hackney when the Citalopram really began to kick in. I probably should have doubled up on Omeprazole, given how dyspeptic I’ve been since they voted in these new polices. But through the sunny haze I clearly remember thinking “Who are all these young people? What are they doing outside Hackney Town Hall on a day hotter than the sun? And why are some of them dressed like Cinderella?”

So began my visit to the recent Support Nightlife protest against Hackney Council’s plans to enforce ‘core hours’ licensing for new venues: 11pm during the week and midnight at the weekends. Outside areas, where you might potentially grab some respite from the recent heatwave or perhaps have a smoke, must close by 10pm. Small wonder, then, that a handful of the 100-odd midday protestors had come dressed as Cinderella, she of the infamously early curfew.

 

There’s more. The Special Policy Areas (SPAs) that govern Shoreditch and Dalston – and which mean that getting later licenses is nearly impossible – will be extended, in the former case. And the criteria they use have been amended from a “presumption of refusal” to a requirement to prove they will not increase the “cumulative impact of the area” – that is, that they will not affect it by creating noise, waste etc. Surely those things were already part of trying to get a license? Well, you would think.  


The midday protest was timed to make an impact on council workers on a Friday – and so local nightlife workers, a community which is directly affected by them, could take part.  As I arrived I saw a bustling crowd, mainly in their 20s and with a visible and vocal LGBTQI contingent.  They looked a lot like the inhabitants of the Hackney clubs I’ve been writing about for over a decade.

Music, the clubs it is played in and the people it is played for have all been the engine of transformation in Hackney, and key to its ascent over the last two decades to become a borough world-famous for its nightlife. It’s produced clubs like dubstep incubator Plastic People and techno staple T Bar (both RIP), and as a cradle of talents as diverse as DJ and actor Idris Elba and techno punk maven Andrew Weatherall, via drag innovator and venue owner Johnny Woo.  

Since the ‘90s Shoreditch, and more recently Dalston, have become worldwide synonyms for a British renaissance in popular culture. Tate Director Gregor Muir’s book Lucky Kunst – the rise and fall of the Young British Artist offers a decent precis of how “trendy East London” got started. It tells how young artists embraced the area as somewhere to work, then later to live; how they used their practical skills to renovate warehouses, often before being forcibly evicted so the owners could rent their improved properties to more affluent tenants. All this fuelled a local boom that went international and bought millions, if not billions, of income into the area in the process.

Back at the protest, freelance creative Ella Hagi summed up mood. “The close-knit community that exists in Hackney venues, late night and otherwise, is left out of the conversation when debating nightlife,” she told me, “which suggests the council doesn’t actually care about its residents. Whether its venues helping each other out, or the friendships formed between people that work at or attend those venues, there is a whole community thriving here.

“But it’s a community so often ignored because it doesn’t fit the PG narrative of what a ‘good community’ looks like.”

Hagi worked at the much-missed Dance Tunnel in Dalston. That closed, voluntarily, back in 2015 due its persistent difficulty in extending its weekend hours from 3 to 4am.

One of the owners of Dance Tunnel was local nightlife operator Dan Beaumont, who I spoke to for CityMetric back when Hackney Council first tried to adopt these measures, almost three years ago.  “The Four Aces, The Blue Note, the Bricklayers Arms, 333…” he wrote recently an impassioned opinion piece for Resident Advisor. “These are places that are part of our shared history. If we regulate them out of existence then we are all the poorer for it.”

Beaumont has been running venues in London since 2000. “There is no way I would be able to open Dalston Superstore or Voodoo Ray's under Hackney's new licensing policy,” he wrote. “SPAs are specifically designed to make it almost impossible for late licenses to be granted, and to deter operators like me from even making the application in the first place.

“We are a small, independent outfit and we simply do not have the resources to take on the risk of applying for a license that goes against council policy.”


SPAs are designed not only to make it less likely late licences will be granted, Beaumont adds, but also to give members of the licensing committee a greater say in passing new licenses. “Restaurants, theatres and cinemas are generally deemed appropriate. Nightclubs are not.”

Now: a nice meal is all very well. (Full disclosure: I’m nearly 38 and now more likely to be found stuffing my face than out dancing at the weekend.) But while sit-down dining comes out favourably from the council’s Cost Benefit Analysis and Night Time Behaviour Study, it doesn’t address the needs  of the people I saw before me on a sweaty Friday lunch time. And the time of day here is important: a growing number of people in our cities don’t work conventional hours. So why are they so easily ignored?

Another outspoken voice among the protestors at Hackney Town Hall was drag performer and host Shay Shay. “I work especially in Hackney – so the idea that these spaces would have to go, that is my entire livelihood. I know people are here who were working late last night, but they’ve dragged themselves out of bed because this is really important. These are lives, this is our community and these are our jobs.”

That sense of community has been a vital aspect of both this protest and of the wider resistance these regressive policies have sparked in the press and on social media. So has the promise, last time these restrictions were on the cards, that Hackney Council would undertake a borough-wide consultation on nightlife. This happened and reported in January: 75 per cent were against the perceived clampdown on the night time economy; 84 per cent were against the 11pm/12am curfews. Yet the council decided to go ahead anyway.

The consultation did at least show that there are clearly a lot of people who feel they’re not being listened to. In the context of London mayor Sadiq Khan’s claim he had a “24-hour vision for London”, the new restrictions seem ridiculous. And the much-vaunted Nightlife Czar Amy Amy Lamé has found herself the target of a lot of abuse for her perceived inaction. That’s self-defeating, in my opinion: Amy Lamé lacks the power to do more than consult. For her to do more, the powers that be would need to listen – and listening doesn’t seem to be Hackney’s strong suit.

The council, it may surprise you, feels certain it knows best. The mayor Phillip Glanville has defended the decision in the Guardian, as well as on these pages. (TL;DR: he is not happy with Giles Coren one bit.) Glanville argues that, without new restrictions, there’ll be rivers of piss – but that radically overestimates just how effective these policies are. For example Shoreditch has had an SPA in place since 2005: nuisance crimes still occur.

What’s more, the mayor’s claim that “business rates have gone up, but this money does not come to the council to spend on services” is not strictly true. Hackney does get 50 per ecnt of those rates back from central government and will get 100 per cent back by 2020. It’ll also have some of the proceeds of the new Late Night Levy, less the lion’s share which goes to the police (who, as Glanville notes, are over-stretched at the weekend).

When these measures were first being discussed back in 2015, a group of local residents and business people formed We Love Hackney, a 4,000+ strong group that found itself the largest residents association in the borough virtually overnight. And while Glanville has been happy to call them dishonest both in print and online, they have led the opposition to these measures using their expertise in nightlife. (Perhaps the borough has had enough of experts.) Indeed, he’s taken to Twitter to call their actions, such as encouraging people who like Hackney nightlife to fill in the consultation, “astroturfing” – a political science term for cases in which vested interests influencing public consultations.

But existing licenses will not be affected. So if We Love Hackney have only their business interests at heart, why would they bother protesting at all? Perhaps because they see how these changes will limit nightlife culture’s ability to evolve – and make Hackney a less vibrant and varied place in the future.     

As We Love Hackney’s Matt Sanders told the Hackney Citizen, “They’re saying that it’s not a blanket ban [on late licenses], but what council has ever specifically brought in a policy which they do not intend to follow? The council seems to think that Hackney has become what it is by accident and there is nothing they do will ever stop that. The fact is it took a lot of hard work and the council meddles with that at their peril.”

The biggest takeaway from this for the nightlife community is the feeling that our concerns are so easily pushed to one side. After the protest, Ella Hagi emailed me.

“I found it so patronising when a council member called this movement ‘scaremongering’ because… each [late license] application will be reviewed on individual merit. I mean, yeah, sure — but which young entrepreneurs can afford to take the risk to even get that far? None. So eventually we’re just gonna have a high street full of Wagamamas and Giraffes that shut at midnight.

“Quite frankly even a 3am license is a piss-take,” she added. “It means venues will struggle. There’s a reason clubs keep closing and that illegal raves keep popping up all over town.”  

An illegal rave sounds a bit much for me these days – but I can understand the appeal to young people who don’t think a few cocktails constitutes a night out. But drug deaths are on the increase. Should we really be cutting down on their chances to party in spaces that are legally regulated and safe? 

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.