For a while, it's felt as though clubbing in London has been under attack. Now, the capital's primary party district – Hackney – has crept into the crosshairs of councils, developers and residents, as it faces the prospect of what nightclub owners are calling a "ban" on new clubs.
With numerous night-spot closures and near-misses, it increasingly seems that London's nightlife is being run by a cabal of fun-police intent on ruining your vibe. (This cabal includes the actual police, with the Met's top cop saying there should be fewer clubs and pubs to reduce alcohol-related violence.) There are widespread concerns about clubs losing their licences at the drop of a pill, as well as the threat of a cycle of gentrification that sees clubs bring money into an area, before finding themselves unwanted by a new type of busybody resident.
Club owners have been making noise about the renewal of Hackney's licensing policy recently. In particular, they are up in arms about the phrase "not considered appropriate", which has been used in a draft licensing policy to describe the council's attitude towards clubbing; those behind Hackney's clubs and bars reckon this ominous phrase spells doom for the borough's nightlife. Freedom of Information requests shown to VICE reveal that a pretty shonky use of statistics has been used to justify the council's stance.
One table set out in an early draft of the policy lists the different types of establishments and how the council will respond to requests for a license in different areas of the borough. So, for example, if you want to sell booze in your restaurant in a "Major Town Centre" – meaning the centre of Dalston, in this case – you will probably be allowed to do so until 1AM on Fridays and Saturdays. If your restaurant is on a residential street, you can probably only sell booze until 11PM. If you want to run a nightclub, however, you're fucked. No matter where you want to put it, your request for a licence will be "not considered appropriate".
The council insists that this doesn't mean there will be no new night-clubs. Earlier this month, Hackney Council released a statement reassuringly titled, "Hackney will not be closing at midnight". "We have used the word 'appropriate' because it reflects what's in the Licensing Act 2003," said Cllr Emma Plouviez, Chair of the Licensing Committee. "It does not mean that we won't grant licenses for those types of venues, it's just the jargon used in licensing regulation which means the balance does not automatically favour the applicant and gives other people more of a say."
Late last year, Alan Miller closed down The Vibe Bar on Brick Lane, in the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets, because of what he saw as "excessive and unreasonable restrictions" imposed on his business. He now heads up the Night Time Industries Association and told me that Plouviez dismissing the "not considered appropriate" as harmless jargon doesn't make sense. " Nowhere in the Licensing Act does it say clubs are 'not considered appropriate'. Indeed, it would be a total contradiction of what the Licensing Act actually is."
I looked at the Licensing Act myself, and it does seem relatively straightforward. "Not considered appropriate" doesn't appear anywhere. The word "appropriate" comes up a lot, but in its standard usage, not as jargon.
Then there's this sentence discussing the licensing possibilities in Dalston town centre: "With the exception of nightclubs, all types of activity are considered acceptable... restaurant, theatre and cinema operations are particularly encouraged to locate here due to the nature of their business." Is that jargon too? Miller said, "Hackney's notion of 'not considered appropriate' vis a vis clubs and bars is clearly apparent more broadly in the consultation document."
Jargon or otherwise, the council seems to have reached its conclusion with some questionable use of data. The above graph shows that the number of people complaining about noise from clubs – the grey line – is diminishing, which presumably reflects clubs meeting the conditions placed upon them.
The yellow line, denoting "Commercial noise – various", however, is spiking – and the document links that to the night-time economy, because these are "generated from non-specific sourced or loud music/voices with no apparent commercial location" and there is "some affinity between noise complaints and the main hospitality areas". Maybe that's fair enough – clubs could be installing sound-proofing, only for their customers to stumble home shouting and singing, smashing bins and waking people up.
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What's more interesting, however, is what's left out of the table. Data about noise complaints retrieved by a FOI request show that music from residential addresses caused complaints 2,775 times in 2013 – nearly eight times the number of complaints about noise from clubs. Meanwhile, people complained about "other noise from residential addresses" four and half times more frequently than they did from clubs. Why doesn't Hackney's draft proposal mention that? A council spokesperson told me that " the licensing policy only covers the premises that it relates to, which is why it doesn't include residential noise".
Still, it raises the prospect that if you close the clubs, people will have more house parties and there will be even more noise complaints. Maybe the solution, then, is to ban house parties? Maybe ban houses altogether, in case people make noise in them?
There are other parts of the document that make you wonder if Hackney is taking a moralistic rather than administrative view of its residents and visitors. Take, for instance, the arrow in the above graph. It suggests that ambulance call-outs for alcohol-related incidents have been increasing steadily, despite the number for July, 2014 at the end being lower than the one at the start – July, 2011. I'm pretty sure you could draw an arrow in any direction on that wiggly line to prove whatever point you wanted to.
Again, the council have been quick to deny that there is a freeze on clubbing in Hackney. Plouviez, Hackney Council's Licensing Chair, said: "The proposed changes to the licensing policy do not mean that we won't grant new licenses, and they will not affect existing ones. Every new licence application will be considered on its merits, and if someone has an idea, we want them to come and talk to us about it. We are very clear that these are guidelines, intended to help secure well-managed, appropriate and attractive venues in all the different areas of Hackney, that I know everyone wants to see."
But in a wider context that has seen many London venues shut down, club owners don't trust that they're on the same page as the council.
The council point out that there are already loads of clubs in the area, but nightclubs are based on renewal. Steve Ball owns The Columbo Group of bars and clubs, including XOYO, The Nest and the Cat and Mutton in Hackney. He told me, "I think it's important that there's an opportunity for the young to come along and do things differently and better. This is going to stop that. The policy is going to essentially freeze frame Hackney nightlife exactly as it is now."
Even the Met Police say in their submission to the planning document that "the 'coolness' of the area is no longer so apparent" since the introduction of a Special Policy Area in Dalston. A Special Policy Area is specifically designed to "limit the growth in the number of licensed premises". Eighty-four percent of residents who responded to the consultation about introducing one in Dalston were against it, but the council went ahead anyway.
Alan Miller told me, " The really concerning thing is that while there is a brilliant opportunity to seize the moment and shape a smart and forward-thinking outlook and approach that urban planners and councils and businesses can emulate across the country, they instead seem to want to patronise residents and business owners in Hackney by saying things – then saying those things don't mean what it is clear they mean."
Deano Jo from Real Gold, the people behind the Alibi in Dalston, summed up the broken relationship venue owners have with the council, and their worries about where Hackney is going. "Pinky swears from the council is not a currency I have much faith in," he said. "Really, though, the reason why people are speaking up is not because our licenses are directly under threat; it's more rooted in us wanting the borough we're in to be a place busy with new additions to late night entrepreneurship."
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