Why I'm Closing Brick Lane's Vibe Bar
Council restrictions are killing UK nightlife.
I first came to Brick Lane as a boy 30 years ago. I was struck by two things – its extraordinary history and how run down it had become. By the time we launched The Old Truman Brewery – anchoring it with The Vibe Bar – off the back of our years as promoters of acid house parties and running clubs around the world, Brick Lane was in an even worse state than I remembered as a kid.
Twenty years on, having been part of a transformation of a part of London that has become a destination, thriving with business and visitors from around the world, we closed The Vibe Bar yesterday due to what we believe to be excessive and unreasonable restrictions on our activity. In this climate, both financially and psychologically, it has proven very difficult to run the kind of operation that we believe the public deserve.
Councils have a responsibility to balance the considerations and concerns of local residents, local businesses and visitors to the area to ensure a sensible urban balance. Of course they do. The question is, though: What constitutes "sensible"? We have always supported the idea of being part of a community, but in the past 18 months there seems to have been a new type of clampdown.
While Tower Hamlets Council, under whose jurisdiction Brick Lane falls, have issued statements saying that the "planning and licensing regulations have not changed", police officers working with licensing have made it very clear that things such as Temporary Event Notices, a type of license that was used by many of the Brick Lane clubs to go on beyond 1AM, would no longer be permitted. Alongside that were a raft of other measures that contributed to my decision to shut Vibe Bar.
When we started out in Brick Lane, we were told by many that nobody would visit, that it was a "no go" zone. But after getting in very early, the Vibe Bar acted as a sort of catalyst. For new businesses that were coming to the 10.5-acre Old Truman Brewery site, it was a place to collaborate and network with other new companies. For the public, it was a venue where all the buzz of a nightclub existed, but with the intimacy of a smaller DJ venue. Curating diverse events – from spoken word to live music, as well as multi-genre DJ events and festivals – foreshadowed much of what happened over the next two decades in East London.
The Old Truman Brewery and Vibe Bar were often referred to as case studies of urban renewal and regeneration. The night-time economy contributes enormously to revitalising run down areas, which is why it's even more confounding that the authorities are increasingly regulating and restricting activity.
Only recently we were teased with the hope of 24-hour leisure in Britain, similar to the civilised experiences of café culture in cities like Paris, Barcelona and Berlin – as well as to the far more flexible times in Finland, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, the powers that be have decided that, up and down the country, British citizens are not to be trusted with such cavalier freedoms.
It's worth reflecting upon the historic backdrop of licensing laws in Britain. From early knee-jerk reactions like the 1751 Gin Act to the Intoxicating Liquor Licensing Bill of 1872 (which introduced the first restrictions on opening hours), all legislation has been directed towards the control of ordinary people. Indeed, it was the concerns of having society "fit for war" that led to the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act, which severely restricted the times that premises could sell alcohol. The working classes were not to enjoy a tipple too late for fear that they would not be good to fight for the empire.
No such laws, of course, were directed towards private drinking clubs, the domain of the wealthy and influential. To this day, a few privileged people enjoy a greater latitude of rules because they don't let the general public in.
Things loosened up in 1988, when pubs wriggled free of their archaic afternoon closures, allowing weekends to operate more sensibly. British life was changing forever then. There was a reorganisation of society after several political battles between the trade unions and Margaret Thatcher, and it birthed an entire new youth movement: acid house.
Acid house's large-scale warehouse parties and field raving transformed music, clubs, fashion and going out in the UK and beyond. When the Criminal Justice Bill was announced, it met significant challenge. Young people questioned the motives of legislation that basically wanted to stop them getting together and partying. While the Bill became an Act, many were vocal about the implications for civil society. Then the Licensing Act of 2003 was brought in, effective from 2005, presented as making licensing more simple – but what has accompanied this has been an increasingly paranoid attitude towards British citizens. The law suspects us of being constantly out of control, always on the edge of behaving anti-socially.
I have always been impressed by how enthusiastic, intelligent and motivated most members of the public are, though. For it is the vast majority of ordinary people who go out to enjoy a few drinks and some entertainment who are being targeted by increased legislation. If the licensing authorities are serious about curbing problems, attention should be placed on the few that break any laws.
Nightlife is the backbone of a city. The night-time economy in the UK is worth £66 billion and employs around 1.3 million people. With that in mind, Britain is hardly in a position to hamper one of the few dynamic success stories it currently has.
The major political parties present themselves as being in favour of small businesses. Ed Miliband declared that Labour is the party of small business and enterprise, while David Cameron created his 12 " business ambassadors". Which makes it all the more ironic, then, that we're under constant pressure from the police, checking up on whether we have the correct number of hooks under our tables.
It's worrying that the contemporary preoccupation with "anti-social behaviour" should dominate so much of legislators' thinking. It has made for a stifling climate in night-time business. For example, by allowing the frequent use of Temporary Environment Notices, all bars and clubs in Tower Hamlets were effectively informed that there was a curfew beyond 1AM. The police, working with the council, had decided that a blanket ban on TENs was what was needed to curb – you guessed it – anti-social behaviour.
This catch-all term avoids specificity, though, and allows authorities to impose limits without clarifying real goals and objectives. Venue owners and licenses were told that "crime has spiked in the borough" because of night-time activity. When we asked to know what that meant, fearing attacks and burglaries, it became apparent they were not referring to an increase in serious crime (which was actually reported last year to have decreased by 9 percent). Rather, an increase in people losing mobile phones and reporting them stolen to get their insurance payments.
The police's position isn't enviable. They don't have a choice but to respond to crime figures. They're under pressure to transfer responsibility for "crime management" onto licensed premises. But risk-averse culture has meant that police are often not willing or able to police the streets actively in the same way as before, or to tackle crime due to health and safety issues. All the while, British night-time businesses are clamped even further with heavily bureaucratised regimes. Compulsory identification scanners, loads of CCTV cameras and small armies of security guards are, it seems, the smart way of avoiding the consequences of dwindling police resources.
Unlike some of the public challenges to the Criminal Justice Act, though, the constant erosion of business and our freedoms – under the guise of anti-social behaviour – go largely unchallenged. Venues and licensees understandably fear additional attention and pressure from authorities. After all, we're reminded by more vocal officers that we can be subject to a "review" of our licenses at any time, threatening the existence of our clubs and bars. The Anti Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act that came in to effect on the 21st of October 2014 takes things even further.
The Orwellian-sounding Public Spaces Protection Orders take ASBO-inspired legislation further still. Up and down the country councils have already imposed restrictions on what we can do in our leisure time. A host of strange terms including "Cumulative Impact Zones", "Saturation Zones", "Early Morning Restriction Orders" and "Late Night Levies" all compete with one another to impose more restrictions. In addition to this, even having a DJ play in a bar or club today requires something called a 696 Form detailing their name and address. Your premises can be shut down without it.
While some "partnership" supposedly occurs on Pub Watch meetings between police and venues, the over-arching message of all this – the alcohol-free zones in Leicester, the breathalysers being trialled outside Norwich clubs, the Blackpool ASB act that prevents men running around in bikinis on stag nights – is: Hey, ordinary people, stop having fun!
The trouble is, though, that night-time economy brings desperately needed inward investment, employment and activity in to run down areas, whether that be in London, Liverpool or Glasgow. For a country that was once one of the coolest destinations in the world, we seem to have allowed a situation where the very thing often provides the glue for our most creative industries – night life – to come under attack. And it's independent traders rather than the big chains that will be the ones to suffer the most.
It is one thing for me as owner of The Vibe Bar to be upset about personal business curbs. However, the far more profound sea change with attitudes towards the public as a threat to law and order – as well as the implications for UK productivity and creativity – makes me worried for us all.
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