What Exactly Is Responsible for the Death of So Many British Nightclubs?
Examining the reasons almost half of the UK's clubs have closed over the past decade.
Last year was an especially shit one for nightclubs. High-profile clubs closed pretty much every month, including London dubstep incubator Plastic People in January, and the legendary Glasgow arts space The Arches in June.
Then, in August, came confirmation that all these isolated closures were adding up to an epidemic. The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers announced new statistics showing a huge drop-off in the number of nightclubs in the UK, from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733 in 2015.
But what's responsible for this dramatic shift? To get a better idea of the situation I spoke to Alan Miller, chairman of The Night Time Industries Association, an organisation set up to represent hundreds of venues, promoters, food stalls and festivals; not only to defend them against the pressures of licence boards and legislation, but also to promote their value and importance to British culture.
Until 2014, Alan was the owner of Vibe Bar on Brick Lane, part of the Old Truman Brewery complex. However, when Tower Hamlets council imposed stringent security measures on the venue – including ID scans, security teams, extensive CCTV and a clampdown on one-off licence extensions for special events – the Vibe Bar experienced a 30 percent drop in profits and Alan was forced to close.
We spoke to him about the obstacles he believes are posing the greatest threats to the nighttime economy, in order to work out who, or what, is killing the British nighttime.
Photo by Anton Zhyzhyn
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the high profile disappearances of so many beloved venues, the biggest threat to nightlife in the UK continues to be licensing boards and local councils. Or, put more simply by Alan, "The biggest challenge is regulation."
As it stands, the UK is an anomaly compared to the rest of Europe. Rather than viewing its nighttime culture as a valuable point of attraction, it is – more often than not – discussed in relation to anti-social or criminal behaviour. These attitudes were perhaps best summed up in comments made by Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. In a speech to the Royal Society of Arts, he claimed that 80 percent of crimes committed in the UK were drink-related, and further suggested that a way of combating this issue would be to reduce the number of pubs.
While, firstly, this suggestion lacks a great deal of logic – even if prohibition did work, simply closing pubs would in no way restrict access to alcohol – it also illustrates the core beliefs that inform the suffocating attitudes typical of governing bodies. Howe's comments also reflect the police's need to hit targets. "Police are chasing stats because they are terrified of losing resources, so they see it as easier just to shut a place down," Alan explains. "Everything is seen as a cost, from the cost of policing it to the cost of the NHS through ambulances."
This connection is a recurrent threat – after one incident relating to drug abuse at The Arches that saw the death of an underage clubber, the venue had its licence to operate as a nightclub revoked following an intensive campaign by the police to shut the club down. This move reduced the venue's annual turnover by 50 percent, making it unsustainable as a business. While the incident was undoubtedly a tragedy, the conversation it provoked could have been about the drugs responsible. Instead, it was about the building where it happened. Alan feels this all too familiar story simply reflects the warped responsibilities that are placed on nightclubs. "We should be treated as an industry when we have these conversations," he adds. "If you get a bank robbery, nobody's first thought is to shut the bank down."
There is, however, perhaps some hope on the horizon, in the shape of the NTIA's campaign to save Hackney from the threat of closures and redevelopment, after the local council attempted to massively reduce the area's nighttime venues.
"We went to speak to the council and they said, 'The residents have had enough,'" Alan tells me. "Only, when we asked which residents and what they had had enough of, they just gave vague answers about noise, or vomit and urine. They were insisting the residents were fed up, so we started a campaign to prove them wrong, and we got 5,300 votes challenging the consultancy."
Not only that, but following in the footsteps of Amsterdam, London is soon to get its very own night mayor. Alan hopes this will offer a remarkable opportunity for the voices of the nighttime economy to be heard. "Finally we'll have someone putting forward strategies and plans for our culture," he says.
Nightclubs' testing relationships with councils and licensing boards are also intrinsically tied to gentrification. Redevelopment has been responsible for swallowing many nightclubs in the UK over the past decade. In some cases, this has been down to regeneration, such as in King's Cross, where The Cross, The Key and Canvas were all lost to the colossal modernisation the area went through in 2007.
Redevelopment doesn't normally take place on this scale, but a glance at areas like Dalston in London, Bristol's Stokes Croft or Manchester's Northern Quarter all showcase the smothering effect of gradual redevelopment. As coffee shops, bars and artisan bakeries begin to pop up, and the demand for space increases, many abandoned or otherwise unwanted spaces that have previously served as nighttime venues are forced to make way for expensive flats or boutique barbers.
It's often because of the new neighbours – who are far less inclined to entertain the idea of a thriving nightclub on their doorstep – that the trouble really starts. With a new demographic of wealthier, more settled residents, what inevitably follows are noise complaints. Alan argues that, as it stands, it is far too easy for a club to be subjected to punitive measures following a tiny amount of actual distress caused.
"When one person complains to the council about noise, the council has to do something," he explains. "So you can have a venue that everyone else in the area is happy with, then one person complains and they have to go to review."
The capacity for one complaint to become an issue that threatens an entire business, says Alan, is fundamentally unfair – predominantly due to who got there first. "If you are new and moving into an area, you have to recognise that you are the agent of change," he argues. "New residents moving in have to see that it is their responsibility to soundproof."
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This was the argument levelled against proposed plans to develop luxury flats in Peckham on a site that overlooked both the Bussey Building and Rye Wax nightclubs. The proximity of the proposed residential units to the clubs left many feeling that the threat of noise complaints was practically certain. As Tom Steidl of Rye Wax said in a statement to FACT at the time, "It's totally ridiculous, the building couldn't be worse positioned for becoming residential. On top of that, the whole site will face access issues that will threaten businesses and undermine what everyone has been working towards in the past couple of years."
Fortunately for Peckham, after a petition against the plans gained around 5,000 responses, Frame Property withdrew their application, claiming they were reassessing in order to achieve a more "long-term approach to the redevelopment".
What words that vague really mean remains to be seen, but they at least indicate some hope for the power of the clubbing community when enough support is put behind a campaign, as well as suggesting the relentless march of gentrification is far from an inevitability.
We're still a long way off a conversation about legalisation in this country, which has led to many nightclubs suffering as a result of often minor – or at least isolated – clashes with the law around drug policy. Complications and closures surrounding drugs only further reinforce the huge gaps in communication between police and nightclubs. When the police's zero tolerance approach towards drugs is translated into nightclub security measures, attitudes and practices are imposed that bear little in the way of a nuanced understanding. Put simply, people will continue to sneak drugs into clubs, yet rather than policing the substances (as the Warehouse Project tried in 2013), the focus has become policing the people, incurring huge costs to the venue and failing to prevent unnecessary casualties.
The Arches is far from the only major British club to fall foul of drug-related incidents. In December of 2014, police called for a review of London's fabric, after four fatalities at the venue. In a report, Chief Superintendent Steve Deehan said that he would "seriously consider" stripping fabric of its licence in order to "prevent further deaths". While this sanction didn't come immediately, the club was forced to undergo heightened security measures, including drugs dogs and a scanning system at entry. With the prospect of sniffer dogs costing £300 each per night, it was highly likely that imposing the requirements on a full-time basis could have spelled the end for the club. Fabric began an appeal against Islington Council, which, a year later, it announced it had won. Not only was this a huge relief for London's clubbing landscape, but also a concrete indication that the battle to recognise the value of nightlife can be won.
Of course, it shouldn't be argued that club closures all the police's fault. With the exponential popularity of music festivals, it's not such a stretch to see how nightclubs are simply suffering as a result of increased competition. As more and more festivals are established every year, some feel that the nightclub has become far less integral to the social lives of young Britons. With the rise of inner-city, daytime festivals that come with cheaper tickets and more DJs crammed onto the bill, the inclination to spend money on club nights is lessened significantly.
Alan feels that another contributing factor is the lack of options in the UK beyond 1AM, something that also affects the attractiveness of Britain as a nightlife destination to tourists.
"We've got this mad situation in Britain where we can have 24-hour licences, but hardly anywhere [has them]," Alan says. "It gets to 1'o'clock and all these tourists look at each other and say, 'Where do we go?'" Compared to the rest of Europe, Alan points out, this again puts Britain at something of an unnecessary disadvantage. "People are now voting with their feet to go to places like Berlin, where you can party for the best part of three days."
Finally, the most straightforward to understand – but probably hardest to address – issue facing Britain at night is exactly what those three words mean to particular people. Many of the justifications for imposing sanctions on nightclubs are essentially rooted in the idea that the night is somehow symbiotic with crime and wrongdoing. After dark means drugs, bloody noses, pissy jeans, smashed windows, hen-dos, bad kebab meat and unlicensed cabs – a constructed world that is as much of an obstacle as any actual legislation. In Alan's words, "Some people, whether they are in local councils or [they're] government ministers, believe that the nighttime is when bad things happen."
This mythologised underworld, this imagined Sin City, is far from the actual picture. "In reality, crime has decreased rapidly, and 27 percent of young people describe themselves as tee total," Alan explains. The nighttime, in his eyes, should instead be viewed as fertile ground, a forum for new ideas and prospective relationships. "We need to change the narrative around nightlife," he stresses. "If you think about what happens as a result of nightlife, it's a lot like how the Olympics were talked about in 2012 – loads of people are involved, it's dynamic, people meet, people fall in love, new businesses are started, it employs people, it feeds into art, inspires new labels, new coffee shops, new designers, new writers, new film-makers and new musicians."
That might sound like a relatively generous description of your usual three-cans-at-home-two-in-spoons-cab-to-the-club-forty-five-minutes-inside-then-back-home-for-a-slice-of-toast-and-an-episode-of-Arrested-Development night out, but he's right. Our nightlife is inexorably tied to our culture, and it's not just nightclubs and DJs. Music venues, studio spaces, theatres and cinemas are all included under this banner, and they all suffer when it is suffocated. Kill the nighttime and you'll have a lot more blood on your hands than you first thought.
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