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? 

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.