A perfect storm. That’s how Amy Lamé, London’s – and the UK’s – first appointed night czar, describes the combination of rising rents, soaring business rates and development that has proved lethal for a staggering number of bars, pubs and clubs across the country over the past decade. And that’s before throwing Brexit into the mix.
How to combat these factors, and improve hospitality venues’ resilience against further closures, was the question asked by Lamé and JJ Goodman, co-founder of London Cocktail Club, at a seminar at Imbibe Live on the future of UK nightlife.
Britain’s night-time industries are suffering, with a disproportionate amount of crucial cultural and social spaces affected post-recession. It’s often hard to escape the stories of charming old boozers and local institutions which haven’t survived the rising tide.
Lamé, as London mayor Sadiq Khan’s night czar, was appointed to address the social and economic consequences of such closures. She says these venues reduce isolation and encourage people to connect; they celebrate diversity and build stronger communities.
And while her remit only extends to nightlife in the capital, she hastens to add that the night-time hospitality industry generates £66bn a year across the UK, and other cities in the country and worldwide are likely to create similar positions to take advantage of the ‘untapped possibilities’ these businesses represent.
‘This is proof that building vibrant nightscapes is the mark of cultural development for a city,’ she says.
Perception vs reality
A nightclub owner in London for over 20 years, she’s well versed in the myriad issues affecting the on-trade and the staff that work in it (‘that one resident’ who always makes a noise complaint, the issues women face with sexual harassment after hours, the idea that hospitality staff ‘party all night and sleep all day’, to name a few).
But her role also encompasses policing, culture, transport, business, environment – all aspects of life at night, with hospitality coming in behind logistics and essential services in terms of the number of workforce employed.
‘We’re not getting a full picture of everything that goes on – the ecosystem of the night – that allows people to carry on with their day-to-day lives,’ Lamé says. The issue, she adds, is the gap between perception and reality surrounding the night-time economy.
Misconceptions about loud music, levels of drunkenness, and crime create a vacuum between local residents and venue owners. These allow politicians and local government to swoop in with vote-bagging measures such as ‘special policy areas’ or clampdowns on licensing that might, for example, result in all bars, pubs and clubs in an area being burdened with restricted operating hours.
A clear example of this is Hackney Council’s recently announced licensing changes, which plans to give all new businesses a curfew of midnight at weekends, and 11pm on weekdays. Businesses will be required to prove that there will be no impact upon local residents if they wish to be granted later opening hours. Lamé has apparently requested a meeting with Hackney mayor Philip Glanville to discuss the issue, so watch this space.
Love thy neighbour
In fact, Lamé claims, neighbours complain more about each other than pubs and bars, alcohol consumption is down as younger people increasingly take it easy or are teetotal, and disproportionately low levels of crime – across transport at least – occur at night in London.
This is why she stresses again and again the value of good relationships between venues and local councils, alongside more concrete initiatives.
‘I think there’s power in collective voices. Things like business improvement districts (BIDs) are helpful; sometimes there are local business associations or chambers of commerce. It’s important bar owners don’t think these aren’t for them, just because they’re more geared towards things that operate in the day,’ she says.
BIDs are business-led partnerships designed to deliver additional services to local operators, and see local authorities and business communities working together to improve an area’s trading environment. ‘It makes communication between yourself and the local council that much easier and gets your voice heard,’ says Lamé.
They’re not the only lifeline available in UK cities, however. She also points to trade lobbies, special dispensation for LGBT or cultural venues and proposed legislation such as the ‘Agent of Change‘ bill, which would make developers responsible for managing the impact of changes they make in an area (for example, in flats built next to existing noise sources).
‘I’d like to see bar owners open up their doors and invite residents in during the day for tea and biscuits, and say, “Come in and see what we’re doing!”’ adds Lamé. ‘It’s a bit of myth busting, rather than an us vs them attitude.’
Finally, Brexit is broached, with the knock-on effect of losing EU staff cited by on-trade employers as one of the biggest challenges to be faced by the industry. Goodman and Lamé agree that huge cultural change is needed, with education being key to attract more British workers to the field.
‘Business owners must see that it falls on their laps to train the next generation,’ says Goodman, adding that wages and working hours must factor into the conversation. Do hospitality employers pay more, or reduce long hours in an effort to attract new blood? It’s a timely question, as mental health and burnout in the sector have emerged as important concerns.
‘I think there’s a whole thing we need to do around skills and working at night, and people seeing it as the graveyard shift,’ Lamé tells Imbibe after the seminar. ‘Some people choose to work at night; some are more suited to it. This is a choice and can be a stepping stone to lots of other exciting career opportunities.’
There’s much to be done to afford late-night businesses the same opportunities and respect as daytime ones, she adds – particularly around women’s safety – but she’s of a mind that there’s little you can’t achieve if you start with a good old-fashioned sit down around the table.