Richard Brown: Should London’s Mayors have more nightlife powers?

Richard Brown: Should London’s Mayors have more nightlife powers?

London’s nightlife has been taking a pasting: a recent (not very scientific) survey suggested that the city has the worst nightlife in the UK; pubs and clubs are being closed down, their numbers falling by eight and 30 per cent respectively since 2010 according to UK business counts; industry bodies say that London is losing nightlife faster than other regions; and social media reports frequently bewail empty pubs, dead streets and early closing times.

What is to blame for this thinning out? There is a grim alignment of factors: changing drinking habits, higher prices and constrained wages, staff shortages following Brexit, changed working and commuting patterns following the pandemic, cautious licensing authorities and the rise in take-away (or delivery) culture.

Some critics point the finger at Amy Lamé (pictured, front left), the Night Czar appointed by Sadiq Khan in 2016. How, they ask, can her six-figure salary can be justified when London’s nightlife is crumbling? More recently, Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall has weighed in, presenting Lamé’s appointment as symptomatic of Khan’s “chumocracy” approach to administration and promising to bring in “real experts committed to reviving our city’s night economy” if she is elected.

Lamé has mounted a vigorous defence of her record, both in keeping venues open and making nightlife safer for all. And I don’t think it is fair to blame her every time the shutters roll down on another London venue (full disclosure: I don’t really know Lamé, but I did spend many 1990s Saturday nights at Duckie, the arty club night she co-founded). But there is a deeper problem too: neither she nor Khan have access to the levers that can keep venues open or close them.

This seems strange, given the wide-ranging remit of London’s Mayors. Nightlife is an essential part of a city’s economy and culture, but licensing late night entertainment and hospitality remains a local authority function.

Licenses are granted by the 33 local authorities in London and governed by central government policy objectives focused on preventing crime, nuisance and negative impacts on children or public health rather than on fostering cultural or economic vitality.

Furthermore, substantial areas of central London are subject to “cumulative impact” policies, which restrict the opening of new premises and extensions of opening hours in order to minimise strains on local infrastructure and the risks of disorder.

The deck is stacked against the hospitality industry. Some boroughs, such as Camden, have sought to relax policies in response to headwinds that have battered the sector since the pandemic, though this has been controversial. In many other cases, restrictions either haven’t been reviewed since 2020 or have been reaffirmed. At the heart of the issue is a balancing act. How does licensing weigh the concerns of local residents, who vote, against the interests of local businesses and visitors, who don’t, and the representations made by the police, who are in the front line when things go wrong?

There’s a similar challenge in town planning – balancing local community interests and the strategic needs of the city. This is why the Mayor was given powers to set policies on issues such as density and use mix, and to intervene in significant cases where local decisions might undermine those policies. Indeed, Khan has already used his planning powers to support London’s nightlife through the “agent of change principle”, which makes developers rather than pre-existing entertainment venues responsible for sound insulation and other mitigation measures.

Should London’s Mayors, who already have oversight of the capital’s police force, take a greater role in licensing, setting a framework for local decisions and perhaps intervening where there is a strategic case for doing so? Giving them more power in this area could take the heat out of local debates and allow for a more consistent and strategic approach to the capital’s night-time economy.

Such an extension of mayoral power might be restricted to central London, where nightlife serves capital city and world city functions, as well as the needs of local communities. Again, there’s a read-across to town planning: the Mayor already has an enhanced planning role in the Central Activities Zone, though interestingly many of London’s nightlife hotspots are distributed around its fringe.

All that said, licensing is difficult. I’m not sure whether the current Mayor or his successors would welcome responsibility for decisions that almost invariably annoy someone. But if we want London to be a successful, liveable and thriving 24-hour city, intelligent licensing has a vital part to play.

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Categories: Analysis

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