Just after midnight on the 7th of September, 2016, Islington Council shut down fabric nightclub. Two drug-related deaths at the venue had led the Met Police to call for a review of the club’s licence, prompting three local councillors to rule it should be revoked. The news spread quickly across London, as clubbers, DJs and promoters united in disbelief that such a cornerstone of the city's nightlife scene could really be lost.
Two months later, with negotiations to reopen fabric still ongoing, the presenter and performer Amy Lamé became London’s first night czar. At an event held at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, London’s mayor pulled no punches when he set out his expectations. "The job of the night czar is a big job," said Sadiq Khan. "Some would say the toughest gig there is in City Hall. The job [Lamé] has is to make sure clubs stop closing down, to stop live music venues closing down."
When Khan said the role would be a tough gig, he wasn’t joking. Just over two weeks later, fabric reopened with a harsh new set of licensing conditions – but Lamé would soon remark that her phone had "almost become a hotline for venues in trouble". There were also personal challenges to overcome. Less than two weeks into the role, Khan’s political opponents were calling for Lamé to be suspended. Speaking at an event to celebrate the first anniversary of her appointment, Lamé laughs when asked if she’d anticipated the size of the job in hand.
"I could see we were, as a city, facing so many challenges," she says. Even so, the first few weeks led her to reevaluate what was going to be required. The job description had outlined a part-time role, but, as pleas for help from venues began to flood in, it soon became clear the job would not be confined to two-and-a-half days a week. "You can’t say, 'Oh no, sorry, I don’t have the time' to your brethren," says Lamé. "I knew how grave the situation was because I’d been in it for so long."
For more than 20 years, Lamé has hosted weekly cabaret-cum-club night Duckie on Saturday nights at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (also known as the RVT), a legendary gay venue in south London. In 2014, the club’s future was thrown into doubt when it was bought by a property developer. Lamé co-founded and became chair of RVT Future, a group set up to protect the venue. RVT Future successfully registered the venue as an Asset of Community Value and a listed building, protecting it from redevelopment.
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In her earlier roles as a writer, community activist and TV and radio presenter, Lamé had found it a strength to speak her mind. Taking a job at City Hall gave her a chance to take the lessons she’d learned in Vauxhall and apply them at a grander scale. "I felt I was put in a position where I was able to help people," she says. But the night czar appointment came with restrictions on her freedom and a level of personal scrutiny that she might not have been expecting.
Less than a fortnight after she was appointed, Lamé came under fire after tweets emerged in which she referred to "Tory scum" and called George Osborne "a cunt". Conservatives on the London Assembly – the body which scrutinises the mayor’s activities – questioned whether she was suitable for the role. Lamé apologised and Khan stood by her, saying that while he did not "agree with or condone" the tweets, he thought she was "the best person for the job".
Recalling this time, Lamé stumbles uncharacteristically over her words. "Look, you know, everybody loves a good tweet – you know, a tweet that maybe offends people, and I’ve apologised for that," she says. "And for me, that’s completely and totally behind me. For me now, it’s really important that I work across all political parties."
Lamé soon learned to speak the language of politics. During a short conversation, she refers four times to "bringing people around the table", adding, on one occasion: "It’s this convening power that is the transformative aspect of my job." She describes a recent "night surgery" in Kingston, one of several visits she has carried out to experience nightlife in different parts of the capital, and the warm welcome she received from Conservative councillors: "I really valued their openness and their willingness to say, 'Alright, OK, you sent maybe some offensive tweets, you’ve apologised, let's move on.'"
It’s not just Conservative councillors with whom Lamé has been making friends. She says she’s been surprised by the attitude of developers and planners. Then there’s the Met – an organisation that was widely perceived as having gunned for fabric’s closure. "The police have been amazing," she says, describing the good relationship she enjoys with superintendent Roy Smith, who leads the Met’s work on licensing in the capital.
Smith says he exchanges emails and phone calls with Lamé on a weekly basis. "Historically, perhaps there’s been a perception amongst some sections of the night time economy that the police are working against them," he says. "Sometimes those conversations have been more difficult to have. What Amy has been able to do is provide an independent and natural mechanism for discussing concerns with us. Ninety-nine percent of the issues she’s raised with us we’ve been able to resolve pretty quickly."
One of those concerns was Form 696 – a controversial five-page document used by the Met to carry out risk assessments before gigs. The police have been accused of using the form to target black and Asian artists, and to shut down grime and garage nights. Smith says it was Lamé's intervention that led to a review of the form. Speaking before the results of that review are published, Lamé says: "You know what, they have listened, they have heard some very uncomfortable things. But they have had to hear it. And my feeling is they are taking those views on board."
Last week, just a few days after Lamé's prediction, the Met announced it was scrapping Form 696. "We have taken the decision to remove the Form 696 and instead develop a new voluntary partnership approach for venues and promoters across London," said Smith. In a tweet, Lamé welcomed the "fantastic decision". "I'd like to thank the Met for working with us at City Hall to listen to the concerns of Londoners," she said.
This was proof that Lamé’s diplomatic approach can work. In other areas, such as putting a stop to venue closures, its effectiveness is harder to measure. A recent post on the City Hall blog lists seven achievements secured by the night czar in her first year. "Reviewing Form 696" is number four on the list, "keeping fabric open" is number one. But sources close to the fabric negotiations say that while the mayor’s office played a pivotal role, Lamé’s personal involvement was minimal (no real surprise, given how new she was to the role). Then, at number five on the list, there’s "Restoring the Rio Cinema" – apparently Lamé encouraged the Dalston institution to launch a crowdfunding campaign for a new facade.
Other achievements are more convincing. Lamé says she helped secure an increased capacity at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, after initial opposition from the council. She worked with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to ensure the Joiners Arms in Hackney will be replaced with another LGBTQ venue, after the site was bought for redevelopment. She has introduced an annual audit of grassroots music spaces and LGBTQ venues. But there have also been negative developments, such as rising business rates threatening pubs and clubs, and the introduction of nightlife taxes in Hackney and Tower Hamlets.
Some were hoping progress would be quicker. Jordan Gross, founder of Oval Space, says Lamé’s appointment was an important symbolic gesture, but he’d like to have seen more radical action from the night czar and her colleagues to tip the balance in the favour of venues dealing with predatory landlords and over-zealous licensing authorities. "They need to make some pretty big changes in the law to really address the situation," says Gross. "They need to get heavy-handed with landlords, councils, and say, 'This is not acceptable.'" On the other hand, he adds: "They are working with government, so I expect things to move at a fairly glacial pace."
Alan Miller, chairman at the Night Time Industries Association, says significant changes were always going to take time. "The thing is to have realistic goals," he says. "The idea the night czar would come in and you’d not have any issues where there are attempts to close venues down or put them under review, it’s unrealistic. It wasn’t going to happen immediately." He cites steps such as the night tube and Lamé's publication of a "24-hour vision" for the city. "We’ve got a long way to go," he says. "But we’ve covered a massive distance."
Lamé says much more is in the pipeline. She has just published an 85-page document aimed at shaping council planning policies in relation to nightlife, including measures such as the "agent of change" principle, which protects venues against noise complaints coming from new developments. The document is titled "Culture and the Night Time Economy Supplementary Planning Guidance".
"It’s not the sexiest of names," laughs Lamé, "but it’s very important."
There were around 200 applications to become London’s night czar. Many will have been attracted by the prestige, but it seems more likely that this is the reality: advising on planning policies; the occasional big win; but mostly just the day-to-day grind of trying to bring about incremental change. Compared to activism and performing, at times, life at City Hall must feel draining. Still, for glamour, there are always Saturday nights at Duckie.
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