We’ve all been there – it’s 11pm on a weeknight, you’re in a pub in London having a drink with friends. You’re having fun, but it’s about to close, so you leave and go in search of somewhere else to have one last drink before heading home. But the quest is futile, there are few places still serving, and those that are open are absolutely rammed, so you call it a night and head home.
It’s a familiar picture and it’s hardly surprising – London’s nightlife has been dying off at an alarming rate, with the number of pubs, bars and nightclubs falling precipitously since at least 2001, despite London’s population growing by over 20 per cent in the same period. When the BBC looked into the issue in 2016, they found there were just 30 nightclubs or bars with a 24-hour license in the whole of London – not many for the city’s nine million inhabitants.
And the situation is not improving. Many of London’s borough councils have imposed ever more stringent licencing restrictions. For example, since 2015, Hackney council has introduced special policy areas for both Dalston and Shoreditch, making it increasingly difficult for venues to stay open late. This occurred despite overwhelming opposition from residents of these areas.
This is bad for London, and it’s bad for Londoners. It’s bad for consumers – the droves of young people who live and work in London and want to go out on a Friday night have only a few places to choose from, leading to little competition and, therefore, little improvement in quality. And it leads to people crowding into the same few locations every time they go out, increasing the chances of problems such as drunken brawls.
Furthermore, the closure of so many nightclubs has led to a boom in illegal activity with the number of raves in London doubling between 2017 and 2018. The decline of London’s nightlife also imperils its place as a world city and cultural centre. Other cities such as Berlin and New York, which have safeguarded rather than discouraged their nightlife (including nightclubs), are in danger of pulling ahead in providing a better quality of life to attract top talent and tourists.
While the current mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, claims to want a 24-hour city, his interventions in London’s nightlife have been something of a curate’s egg. He’s overseen the introduction of the night tube – undoubtedly a good thing – and he appointed a night czar in 2016. What’s more, he’s embraced most of the recommendations of the Night Time Commission, which he appointed to look at improving London’s nightlife.
However, most of the good he’s done has been, in the words of TS Eliot, “gesture without motion” – there’s been a lot of talk but not much action. The night czar has yet to make much of a practical impact in revivifying the city’s nightlife or saving any of the nightclubs or music venues which are closing. And he’s committed only to research the benefits of extending opening hours in London, rather than actually trying to do it.
What’s more, most of the other recommendations of the Night Time Commission involve the mayor getting more involved in trying to improve London’s night-time economy, rather than relaxing the stringent regulations that are in place and letting the market and entrepreneurs do it themselves, which they would if they were allowed to. When the mayor and the authorities have acted, they’ve mostly done things to actively harm the nightlife of London – witness the bully boy tactics used against Uber, a company which has done far more than the mayor to improve London’s nightlife.
Liberalising licencing and other nightlife regulations could have big economic benefits. The London night-time economy already generates around £40 billion in economic activity, and about 725,000 people or one in eight Londoners are employed because of it. A large proportion of these will be young people.
And it is, of course, young people who are suffering the most economically from the current lockdown. Many of their jobs have been furloughed or destroyed, and when the crisis passes many will find themselves without employment, as countless restaurants, bars and clubs inevitably don’t reopen.
Liberalising licensing and other nightlife regulations will be one way we can massively increase job creation quickly for the young, while also creating huge amounts of extra economic activity and new business opportunities for London’s entrepreneurs to take advantage of.
Once the current crisis is over and we can go out and socialise again, we’ll no doubt want to celebrate – I know I will anyway. Sadly, in London, that’s becoming ever more difficult to do. We need to liberalise the licensing regulations which strangle the London nightlife and set the market free to create the venues that consumers want and the jobs and businesses we’re going to desperately need once Covid-19 passes.