A tweet last week about pub closing hours in the West End sparked another intemperate row about Soho, with calls for residents to “move out” if they don’t like late night drinking.
“Pubs in London should be able to stay open until at least 1am every night. 2am on weekends. Clubs 4am,” she followed up. “If you don’t like it, move. It’s a capital city.”
Residents – and there are more in the West End than many people realise – weren’t happy. “What happens to the 2,600 people who live in Soho under your plan? Many in social housing,” the Soho Society asked. “Where are you suggesting we move to?”
The newly-elected West End ward Labour councillor Paul Fisher, while urging more balance, perhaps stirred the pot too: “Maybe – just maybe – a more nuanced approach to reviving city centres *and* protecting residential amenity could work…If you don’t like it, move!…to Magaluf.”
Cue familiar responses such as suggestions that residents may have “confused Soho with Bishops Stortford”, advice to move to the Cotswolds, north Wales or the Highlands, and, less pleasantly, insults such as “miserable sods”, “pompous arsehole” and worse.
“Imagine choosing to live in Soho and worrying about your sleep. Like moving to the North Pole and crying that it’s cold,” contributed Gill, with a swipe too at ‘Nightlife NIMBYism’ – “your last pint in London needs to be at 9.30pm – and we’ve got to close up the centre of the UK economy – because a boomer in Soho needs their sleep.”
Others, more seriously, questioned again – as with Sadiq Khan’s dashed hopes for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street – whether decisions of citywide significance, as those affecting the West End often are, should be taken at mayoral rather than borough level.
The spat echoed the outcry when the previous, Conservative-controlled, Westminster Council scrapped “al fresco” dining on Soho’s streets last year. Similar arguments were in play during May’s local elections, which saw Labour candidates win all three West End seats – and take control of the council – for the first time.
Westminster hosts the largest evening and night time economy in the country and the West End – an area of less than one square kilometre, which contains more than 3,200 residential households in all – contains the greatest concentration of licensed premises in the UK.
Patrick Lilley, one of the newly-elected West End Labour councillors and now the lead member for Soho, points out that “Soho does have pubs, bars and clubs that open later, many much later.” Soho alone has 466 licensed premises, including 39 bars, 46 pubs and 31 clubs as well as many restaurants, theatres, cinemas and off-licences. According to the Soho Society, 114 of them enjoy licences extending beyond 1am.
The “scale, diversity and concentration of the evening and night-time economy, particularly in the West End, is unique and brings cultural and financial benefits to the whole city,” the council’s licensing policy intones. But there’s a downside too: “Significant challenges that impact on services and local amenity” in councilspeak.
For residents, says the Soho Society, that means “noise nuisance, problems with waste, urinating and defecating in the streets, threats to public safety, anti-social behaviour.” Lilley claims it’s been getting worse since the “al fresco” dining experiment during the pandemic. “We’re spending thousands on pop-up urinoirs and portaloos and street cleaning,” he says. “But the stench in the morning can be overwhelming on some streets.” He adds that residents in social housing can’t “just up sticks” and should not have “fewer rights than others” because of where they live.
Then there’s evening and night time crime – some 10 to 13 times higher than the borough average, according to the 2020 council assessment, with around 45 per cent of the borough’s violent crimes and more than half of all its robberies, thefts and drug crimes between 2017 and 2019 taking place in that small area.
Late night drinkers, a “considerable number of them intoxicated”, and the criminals they attracted, were to blame, the assessment said, with police and health services, street cleaning and rubbish collection all under “chronic strain”.
The law obliges councils to promote the prevention of public nuisance, crime and disorder when determining licence applications. The need to meet those objectives, along with addressing the overall impact of the area’s nightlife, prompted the council when under Conservative control to introduced its “cumulative impact zone” policy.
Effectively this seeks to cap licences in the West End for pubs, bars, music venues and fast food premises at current levels, resisting any applications to open beyond “core” hours – 11.30pm Monday to Thursday, midnight on Friday and Saturday and 10.30pm on Sunday. Applications must be considered on their merits, but the then Tory council was clear that new licences would be granted only in “genuinely exceptional circumstances”.
Anyone expecting Labour, which fought the West End ward on a platform of standing up for residents, to change tack, is likely to be disappointed.
“A successful city has places to live as well as places to work, shop and have fun,” Geoff Barraclough, Westminster’s cabinet member for planning and economic development, told On London. What he calls “the al fresco debacle” in Soho showed what happens when one interest group outweighs the others, in Barraclough’s view.
“Nobody should have to put up with the noise, rubbish and lack of basic sanitation which often accompanies a big night out in Soho,” he says. “The new administration in Westminster is determined to strike a more equitable balance between the needs of local residents and those of visitors to the West End.”
With cities looking to increase the numbers of people living in their centres as the post-Covid balance of retail, business and tourism shifts, it’s a debate that is set to continue.
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