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? 

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.