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? 

 
 
 
 

Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust