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? 

 
 
 
 

There is one good thing to be said for the Beeching Axe

The Alban Way, near Hatfield. Image: Claude Lynch.

In the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan’s government commissioned a report intended to modernise Britain’s railway system, and to make it profitable for the first time in ages. Victorian “railway mania” had generated some of the most impressive railway routes in Europe, but it had come at a cost: early investment in railway infrastructure had grown and grown, even in areas where it was economically unsustainable. The changing transport habits of the post-war period proved the final straw: by 1963, fully half the train stations in the UK only brought in 2 per cent of the revenue, with many routes running almost empty trains at a heavy loss.

This problem, outlined by the report, was not controversial; indeed, it was factual. But it was the solution, proposed by the now infamous Dr Beeching, that proved so radical: closing almost half of the United Kingdom’s railway infrastructure for good. The “Beeching Axe” has been loathed by public transport pundits ever since, with the likes of Lord Andrew Adonis urging for it to be reversed, condemned and, I presume, consigned to the dustbin of history. We’re still dealing with the repercussions of the today.

But the public perception of the Beeching Axe is incomplete. For one, it was written at a time when car ownership was skyrocketing and replacing travel on the railways. Beeching’s recommendations came not only from his presumed visceral hatred for public transport, but also the time in which he was writing.

Moreover, the railway lines that have been reopened since Beeching are those that have seen substantial housing development in the interim. We demonise Beeching because we now understand just how important rail travel is for a sustainable public transport network – but he couldn’t have known the in-and-outs of harmful nitrous oxides or the horrors of the motorway box.

In any case, there were some lines axed by Beeching that are hardly worth resuscitating: railways easily substituted by bus, railways that were single track requiring widening, or railways that have simply deteriorated too much and face costs too high to be worth rejuvenating.

But it’d be a total misstep to write these disused railways off and sell the land back. After all, even if they can’t carry trains, they can still carry people; and what a great windfall that turned out to be. Because we got to replace our extra railway lines with the best cycle paths in the country bar none.

Labelled as “rail trails”, many disused railway lines across the country later became public rights of way. And with sleepers and rails removed, the paths are often extremely straight and have shallow gradients, making them perfect for leisurely cycles or even commutes.


In Hertfordshire, for example, rail trails run between St. Albans and Hatfield, Rickmansworth and Watford, and Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead. They’ve all got fashionable nicknames and, in places, the former infrastructure remains as a homage to the era of railway mania – platforms turned to flower gardens and so forth. Other routes are more bucolic, such as Cornwall’s Camel Trail or the Downs Link between Surrey and Sussex.

All this may sound idyllic, but what are the tangible benefits of these rail trails, as opposed to returning them to their original use? For one, they’re far cheaper than railway infrastructure, both to build and maintain. They also offer easy, direct routes between town centres in parts of the country where segregated cycle paths are otherwise rare (essentially, anywhere outside London). This encourages novices to give cycling a go in a welcoming, safe environment, and encourages commuters to try cycling to work. Moreover, and perhaps most obviously, rail trails provide easy access to a green spaces within urban areas that are quiet, pollution-free and welcome to all.

But there’s still work to be done – many potential “rail trails” are in the administrative doldrums despite the relative ease of their creation. In my home county of Suffolk, there’s a rail trail that runs halfway between Ipswich and Hadleigh, but it abruptly ends: one can only presume that farmers bought up the disused railway land.

Meanwhile, there are council areas where building new cycle infrastructure simply isn’t a priority; road building still holds the sway. Before we can build more rail trails, people need convincing of their benefits. Of course, that’s simply done; just point to the nearest one and give it a go. After all, they’re ubiquitous in some pockets of the UK.

There shouldn’t be a single disused railway line left in this country when the cycle paths they could become provide such an excellent blueprint for new cycling infrastructure. They’re not just a swan song to Victorian railway innovation; rail trails are our chance to approach cycling today with the same zeal and enthusiasm as we did with trains in the age of railway mania. The best is yet to come, and, oddly, it’s all thanks to the venerable Dr. Beeching.