Why London’s nightlife is dying a slow death

The numbers speak for themselves: over the last ten years, 40 to 50 percent of the UK’s gig and club venues have shut down – mainly in London. How has this happened and what can be done to save London’s nightlife? We asked Thomas Van Berckel of the Night Time Industries Association for his thoughts.

SE1, Turnmills, The End, The Fridge, Plastic People, Passing Clouds, Shapes, Dance Tunnel… The list of recently closed London nightclubs is getting longer and longer. Last April, the Night Time Industries Association – a union of gig and club venues, organizers and promoters – launched a campaign with the title “Nightlife Matters” in an attempt to vocalize public opinion and prompt government action. On 6 September, the decision made by Islington Council to close the iconic club Fabric shocked clubbers around the world. We got in touch with Thomas Van Berckel of the Night Time Industries Association to discuss the wave of closures and the current state of London’s nightlife.

How do you explain all these closures?

It comes from a variety of different issues that have come together at the same time to create a perfect storm.

Firstly, the property prices in London are very high so the business model of running a club in London is very difficult. It’s easier business to turn your club into a flat or an apartment and make good money that way. The rent for clubs and venues is also always going up.

Coupled with this, the council – and hence the police – has had its budget cut by 50 percent by the government. But at the same time as having their budget cut, the authorities also have to improve their performance – which seems like an impossible task. So that means that there is more regulation and more control over nightclubs. And that’s a big problem, because if you have a venue that only has a license until 2 or 3 a.m., it’s very difficult for it to make money. So, across the UK, there are some difficult licensing issues.

Also, because more people are living in central areas in London, there are more complaints about sound. A lot of people who are not familiar with these areas are moving there, whereas before there was more of a sense of community in these parts. For example, the Bussey Building in Peckham: a block of luxurious apartments was supposed to be built next to the club, and in the end the Bussey Building won because the people said, “We don’t want to build these apartments next to your club.” So there are some success stories.

Another issue is the interception of drugs and drug use. It has an impact – as it did on Fabric and other big clubs like The Arches in Scotland, which closed as well. It’s a complex issue…

Do you think closing places like Fabric and The Arches because of drug issues is a solution?

Definitely not. Closing a venue doesn’t stop people from taking drugs. And, in fact, closing Fabric will have the opposite effect: it means that people will go to unregulated, unsupervised, illegal parties and won’t have trained door staff and staff that know how to look after, take care of and help people who are having drug problems. Venues can also work with the police in terms of reporting drug dealers. And if you close Fabric, that whole work and network is gone.

You can’t hold a venue responsible for taking drugs. A venue has to make sure it’s run professionally, but at the end of the day people take drugs. You can’t stop people from taking drugs – otherwise you would be closing every place down! One of the big problems surrounding drugs right now is that they are smaller than ever, so they are easier to smuggle. And an even bigger problem is that they are five to ten times stronger than they were five years ago, so they are a lot more powerful.

We are in favor of anonymous drug testing. It’s being pioneered in the UK by The Loop and has been done in the past in Amsterdam in Holland and also Berlin in Germany. The idea is that people can access drug testing areas where they can test what’s in their drugs without being arrested because it’s anonymous. By doing so, we could help people take responsibility and we could give them some safety. They could find out what they are putting in their bodies. This has proven massively successful in other countries.

Are some areas more affected than other by this situation?

Individual boroughs have their own policies – some are more progressive and open to new ideas than others. Even across the UK, you find this situation. In Manchester, for example, they are very forward-thinking and they realize the importance of nightlife. Because of that, the police work hand-in-hand with the venues. In London, we could learn a lot from what you can see in Manchester: they have done anonymous drug testing, have pioneered that with warehouse projects, and have also been involved in other interesting projects.

How has the government being dealing with the problems nightlife is facing in London? Some measures have already been taken like having the tube running 24 hours…

We’ve made big progress. Night shifts are definitely a good thing. We’ve created a music task force board and a night-time commission that can ease issues. We’ve also created a position called the “night czar” at the main office – it’s like a night-time champion to make sure we have a thriving night-time economy. We’ve learned all of this from Amsterdam and Berlin. Things have been done, but changes need to happen quickly. The question is whether this progress will turn into results. It’s a shame things have to go so bad for people to really do something.

What more could be done?

We would like some of the issues to be discussed. For example, the “Agent of Change” principle, which implies that the person or business responsible for a change is also responsible for managing the impact of this change. This means that if a block of flats is being built next to a nightclub, it needs to be soundproofed. People have to realize that they are moving next to a nightclub – whereas what happens now is that people move into these areas and then complain about the noise. We’d like to have a rational discussion with the government about all the benefits the night-time industry can bring: the role music and night time play in our culture, the travel benefits for the city of London as an attraction, the social and the cultural benefits, the business benefits…

Are you optimistic about the future of nightlife in London?

The closure of Fabric has been really upsetting. So many places are closing right now… Mode Club, a well-known venue that has been here for the last 15 years, got closed a few days ago. And just the week before Fabric, three other venues closed: Passing Clouds, Shapes and Dance Tunnel – three places in the same week!

Fabric is a national institution and it’s a part of a whole culture of electronic music. The government doesn’t seem to acknowledge this right now. Closing Fabric is like closing the Royal Opera House or the British Film Institute.

The Fabric situation has made things a lot worse. Whether you liked to go there or not, Fabric was really the heart of club culture in London. And now that has been taken away, it’s made people angry and upset. As a result – now more than ever – people are definitely taking action and want to do something about it. That’s why we created the campaign. I think that in the next couple of weeks or months, you’re going to see a lot of news and action being taken to deal with this problem.

Photo : Rosa Maria Koolhoven

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