Why are Britain's nightclubs closing?

At least Glastonbury's still going. Image: Getty.

The Arches was one of Glasgow’s most popular nightclubs, renowned for its music and independent spirit. But last June the club closed down after its licence to stay open beyond midnight was revoked, making the business untenable.

The decision can be traced back to a Saturday night in February 2014. A 17-year-old girl called Regane MacColl fell ill at the Arches (which had an over-18s policy) and later died in hospital. She had taken “Mortal Kombat” – a pill with the image of a dragon printed on it – possibly before entering the venue.

In the months that followed, the police insisted that the Arches introduce “airport-style security”, says Scott Forrest, the club’s former music programme manager. Visitors were subjected to full-body searches on arrival and they weren’t even allowed to bring in chewing gum.

Those who had drugs on them were treated far worse there than at many other clubs, Forrest tells me. In a typical weekend, of the 2,000 people crammed into the venue, about 15 would be found to be in possession of illegal substances. “We followed the law to the letter,” he says. “Even people caught with a joint would be reported to the police. Everyone got searched, even artists and DJs.”

Yet the club’s success in finding and reporting those carrying drugs may have worked against it. “The police took the statistics and used them to close us down, which was just sinister,” Forrest says. Soon, the Arches was forced to shut at midnight instead of 3am. It could no longer make enough money to survive.

The story of the Arches resembles those of numerous clubs and party spaces around the UK. The number of nightclubs in Britain has almost halved since 2005 – down from 3,144 to 1,733, according to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. Even in London, with the help of the city’s tourism, 24-hour transport and world-famous venues, the number of clubs has declined by a third.


The Arches was just one example of the extreme pressure being imposed by law-enforcement authorities and local councils. The police force has lost 17,000 officers since 2010 because of budget cuts and this has had a terrible effect, says Alan Miller, the chair of the Night Time Industries Association, formed last year to lobby for the sector. “The police fear that they’re running out of resources,” Miller says. “Venues are seen as a strain and blamed for poor behaviour, even off the premises. Some local councils are imposing more and more conditions on nightclubs: extra security, CCTV, metal detectors, sniffer dogs, breathalysers.” All of this creates new costs, which are passed on to customers.

Changes in the law have also damaged clubs. Alcohol prices have risen significantly in real terms since the 1980s, mainly as a result of government taxation. The ban on smoking, which came into effect in 2007, has had a knock-on effect. As club owners have become more vigilant, some partygoers have been put off. “If people want to score drugs nowadays, they know where to go,” says an insider. “And it sure as hell isn’t a nightclub.”

The law has changed nightlife in other ways. Being the only place to drink after 11pm was once a unique selling point of nightclubs, but since 2005 many pubs and bars have been allowed to extend their opening hours. Where once clubs had few rivals after midnight, punters today can stay in one place from early evening until the early hours.

Another problem is property prices, especially in London. Nightclub owners can often make more money by selling their premises to developers than by operating them as a club, Miller says. Party venues have always come and gone, thanks in part to gentrification and changing tastes, but high rents and strict licensing laws are making it far harder for entrepreneurs to break into the business. Those who manage to do so are expected to accept new costs; say, as more residents complain about noise, clubs have had to invest in expensive soundproofing.

Turnmills in 2007: another club since replacement by flats and offices. Image: Getty.

No wonder disillusioned clubbers have increasingly taken to partying overseas, making use of low-cost airlines. “London used to be the king of clubbing. Now it’s Berlin,” Forrest says. When British clubbers go abroad, they find a more dynamic and varied scene where booze is often markedly cheaper. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK.

But clubbing has been affected by something more fundamental: the changing tastes of young people, who are better behaved than previous generations. The proportion of those aged 16-24 who are teetotal increased by more than 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013; a quarter of those under 25 don’t drink at all. The use of drugs and cigarettes has also declined.

The lingering effects of the recession and an increasingly competitive job market have made going out and getting wasted seem less appealing. At the same time, modern technology has created innovative forms of entertainment that won’t leave you with a hangover. The internet has made it easier to discover new music indoors and those who in the past would have gone out hoping to find romance can now use dating apps such as Tinder.

The history of nightlife in the UK is cyclical and it is entirely possible that the industry will renew itself. But, in order for this to happen, clubs will need to adapt to evolving tastes and will need greater support from local authorities that recognise and value their contribution to the economy, to communities and to culture as a whole. 

This article was originally published on our sister site, the New Statesman.

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Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.