In Britain, planning stops when the sun goes down – and it's hurting our night-time venues

Out. Image: Darrell Berry/darrell-berry.com/Flickr.

London has never been a 24 hour city. We’ve all experienced the difficulty of getting something to eat that’s even marginally healthy after 11pm.

There is a reason for this, and it is not cultural, but legislative. Our planning system is designed to guide uses from sunrise to sunset, not sunset to sunrise.

That’s because it is much simpler to govern daytime activities than those that happen after dark: most shops keep pretty regular trading hours. But pubs, nightclubs and other businesses that trade after dark are more variable, and more difficult to standardise.

As a result, Britain’s national planning laws are more suitable to what happens during the day. This leaves a much more variable, piecemeal system to manage the night time.

Our National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been deprioritised by our current government. But it nonetheless offers detailed guidance concerning standard building practices, retail trading hours, transport systems and so on: there is one system that informs all activities during the day.

At night, this system is replaced by an altogether different system that we call “licensing”, which differs from council to council. It is this system of licensing, and what it is doing to how we treat our night time economy, that needs to change.  

Britain is one of the most restrictive developed nations in its licensing policies. When councils develop such policies, they design them to be relevant to the local needs of the residents and businesses. However, they’re answerable to voters – and those who are mostly likely to vote are often not the people most likely to go to bars, pubs and nightclubs.

The result is a patchwork of restrictions that make little sense. Some nightclubs claim they have to satisfy over 70 licensing restrictions to operate: licensing covers everything from health and safety, to nuisance prevention, to the right to serve alcohol. But it does so without a framework of guidance.


One must regulate what can and cannot happen at night; but the regulations being proposed fundamentally ignore the fact that there is an economic ecosystem at night, just as there is during the day. Yet there’s no structured planning guidance to account for this for this. Planning is calculated, prescribed and didactic; licensing is individualistic and reactionary.

By way of example, consider the noise complaints made about commercial venues. Such complaints are common, and have resulted in a number of music venues and nightclubs being threatened with closure. Ministry of Sound spent nearly £1m fighting such issues; The Fleece in Bristol is embroiled in complaints right now.

Tackling such complains through licensing is clearly not working. In the Ministry of Sound case, a planning decision settled the challenge: the developer agreeed to a “Deed of Easement” notice, meaning those who buy the flats have to accept the club and its activities, as long as it does not breach its regulations. But it took a fortune and much fighting to reach that conclusion, and a licensing problem was solved only through common sense planning law. The Fleece’s situation still remains precarious.

Both situations are the result of a lack of night time planning structure in the UK. We use licensing conditions to solve issues that should have pre-arranged solutions in the NPPF.

There are other options. Some cities have night mayors (Amsterdam, Rotterdam). Others have night time entertainment commissions (San Francisco). But in London, we don’t have a planning framework to support our nightlife: policy assumes that most of us go home by 10pm, and those that don’t are considered a nuisance.

The night-time economy isn’t disappearing. It’s growing, and our cities are better for it. At some point, London will welcome the 24 hour tube. It’s time we noticed that and began planning to make it even better, for those who go out – and those who stay in.

Shain Shapiro is the managing director of Sound Diplomacy, a leading music market development agency.

 
 
 
 

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.