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How a London Borough's Proposed Nightlife Clampdown Turned into a Shitshow

The council in Hackney caused a furor when it announced new nightclubs would have to close at 11 PM on weeknights and midnight on weekends.
London, United Kingdom
August 13, 2015, 7:55pm

Photo by Jake Lewis

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Nightclubs are shutting down everywhere but the problem seems most acute in East London. On the first day of the year, Plastic People announced it was shutting down. This week it emerged that the George & Dragon would be closing, the third gay pub to be lost in Shoreditch in less than a year. But the most troublesome development came when Hackney Council announced a proposed licensing clampdown, with any new bars or clubs expected to close at 11 PM in the week or midnight at weekends. If there is a war on the UK's nightlife, this week Hackney council made its first tactical retreat—postponing its consultation because of what it calls a "minor error."

When Hackney started their licensing review, bar and club owners in the area quickly launched the We Love Hackney campaign to raise awareness about the plans and encourage people to share their views with the council. In just a few weeks, more than 4,000 people signed up and 2,000 emailed the council through the campaign website. Many more responded directly. Hundreds of people made their views known on Twitter under the hashtag #NotConsideredAppropriate—a reference to the council's view on nightclubs in an early draft of its proposed policy.

This week, the council suddenly pulled its consultation. With just three days to go, councillors noticed a "minor error" in the draft policy. They were keen to state this was definitely not a result of the huge backlash against the proposals. However, they conceded, it would allow for "further engagement" to take place before another consultation next year.

A day later, events took another unexpected turn. When pressed for details about its "minor error," the council admitted that more than 25 percent of the opening times in its proposed policy were incorrect. In fact, the council wanted an even more harsh regime than previously thought—with many venues only deemed acceptable if they closed at 11 PM rather than midnight. To be clear, this was not a minor error. Getting the times of your proposed licenses wrong could definitely be described as a Massive Fucking Error. The consultation had become a shambles. Was this a U-turn? A mistake? A stalling tactic? No one knew if it was a cock-up or conspiracy. It was starting to look a lot like both.

The We Love Hackney campaign had organized a rally for supporters on Wednesday night at Shoreditch street food venue Dinerama. I went down to try and find out what this all means. Many of the people behind Hackney's bars and clubs were there, as well as hundreds of residents who had turned out to show their support. News that the council had, for the time being, cancelled its plans seemed to have everyone in a good mood. The sun was out, there was a free bar. Towards the end, Hackney MP Diane Abbott turned up and posed for photos.

Despite the buoyant atmosphere, no one was ready to assume the battle had been won. Kerry Maisey set up Ridley Road Market Bar in 2011. She explained how the council had helped her secure planning permission and licensing. "I wouldn't be able to do that under the proposed licensing policy," she said, raising concerns that a clampdown would send Hackney's nightlife into a downward spiral. "It's important to manage development but Hackney's blanket approach favors incumbents, creating monopoly and reducing the incentives to do better."

Maisey's point neatly skewered one of the arguments made by supporters of greater licensing restrictions: That opposition is being driven by existing venue operators with the most to lose. Limiting the number of venues benefits anyone who already runs a bar or club, reducing the amount of competition and placing a premium on the value of their license.

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While thousands of ordinary people wrote oppose Hackney's plans, the council doesn't seem to want to know. Local councillors have a clear idea of what their constituents look like, and they don't look like clubbers. Dan Beaumont is the man behind Dalston Superstore and Dance Tunnel: "You will find that a lot of people who complain about bars, look and sound like councillors," he said. "What we have to try and do is widen the perspective so that we end up with a settlement that works for most of the people who live in Hackney."

Hackney Council now plans to hold another consultation next year. Perhaps there will be a different policy. Or, perhaps the same battle will have to take place again. Jonathan Downey is a restaurateur and bar owner who helped organize the We Love Hackney campaign. He told me he hopes a proper discussion will take place. But he's not confident. "I don't think the people involved in formulating that policy and then operating it are the right people," he said. "They either change, or they've got to be replaced. It's just another mess from the council's licensing division."

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This problem isn't isolated within Hackney. Local authorities across the UK seem to think that nightlife can be easily separated from the rest of our cultural landscape. They're wrong. You can't pick and choose the aspects of culture that you like, shutting down bars and clubs but keeping the coffee art and the pop-up opera. Perhaps local councillors don't recognize the role that nightlife has played in the evolution of our cities. Maybe they just don't care.

They should. Shortly after I arrived at the We Love Hackney event, I spoke to Alan Miller, chair of the Night Time Industries Association. "If everyone in Hackney truly said, 'We don't want any of this,' we'd have to think again," he told me. "But millions of people every week go out voting with their feet. Local councillors in Hackney and across the country get less votes than we've had in the We Love Hackney campaign. People should take note of that."

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