By Alan Miller
Twenty years ago almost to the day, my partner and I came to Brick Lane in London's East End to embark upon a project that would help change the face of a substantial section of London. Indeed, the development of The Old Truman Brewery has been referred to by many institutions as a template for urban regeneration. Having staged big dance events in Australia, Asia and Europe we felt we were at the leading edge of something exciting, new and dynamic and that this energy could be invested in this part of London to create a destination location and improve an economically deprived, run-down area.
Thus we created a new type of business centre, full of creative companies and individuals from the worlds of music, fashion, design, art, film and the newly emerging IT sectors. At the heart of it we opened The Vibe Bar as a thriving hub for the area's burgeoning nightlife and creative economy.
At The Old Truman Brewery, we now house hundreds of companies: most of whom came because of the 'buzz' created largely by the night time activity. The bars and clubs of Brick Lane and Shoreditch, as well as up and down the country, all contribute an enormous amount to the UK balance sheet as part of what is now known as the 'night-time economy'.
All good then? Sadly not. Over the past couple of years, it has become increasingly clear that there has been a concerted agenda in London and beyond to curb this night-time economy. In Camden, Southwark, Islington and Tower Hamlets limits on closing times of venues have been imposed under the dubious guise of diminishing 'anti-social behaviour' (as opposed to the breaking of specific laws). Accompanying this is the increased number of 'zones', where all sorts of arbitrary controls are created to limit activity, such as the Orwellian-sounding Cumulative Impact Zones.
For all the promise of imitating European style bar and restaurants with tiered and late closing, in reality this has not occurred in Britain. Far from a liberalised drinking culture, we are seeing ever-expanding restrictions on what we can do. In particular, the use of Temporary Entertainment Notices (TENs) by venues has been attacked vigorously in certain areas. TENs enable licensed premises to go later for one off occasions.
Yet if an establishment pursues their legal right to achieve a TEN, they can be assured of significant police attention and scrutiny: with pressure placed on individual licensees by threatening a loss of their license and even a criminal record if the litany of conditions is not met. And if one challenges any of this there's always the lingering threat that the venue will go to 'review' after any visit.
While some organisations are rich and brave enough to fight this alone, most cannot afford the risk of a protracted legal battle where the premises closes. Even if they are subsequently told they are in the right, the loss of trade is a killer.
With ID scanners almost compulsory now for most venues and the spiralling demands of health and safety regulation, it is a wonder that any venue has any time to entertain anyone. During last New Year's Eve, at around 11.45pm, I was having a conversation with senior officers who were warning me about the need to ensure people didn't get too tipsy in the venue.
Not content with a blanket curfew of anything after 1am in Brick Lane, authorities have gone even further. Police and licensing have spearheaded a campaign to stop curry houses operating according to their licensed closing times at 1am, on the basis that they only have planning until midnight. Planning is now being used further to eradicate any use of TENs. Goodbye late night drinks, guys!
The police, it seems, have been mandated from their superiors to simply get results; a bit like parking tickets. Thus there is no sense of collaboration or working in partnership - despite the Pub Watch committee language. While police deny there are 'quotas', there is a pressure to constantly catch people and hand them over. This used to be the role of the police; now it is incumbent on the private sector. So while private policing did not get passed through parliament, in effect premises are being forced to do much of that work.
Some will argue that the scourge of binge drinking or drug culture needs to be curbed. However, when one studies the so-called increase in crime stats, often we see that it is mobile phones that are reported stolen. They are reported stolen more often than not because people have lost them but want to claim on their insurance, which requires a crime report. Hence 'crime numbers' go up and officers are told to go out and reduce the crime figures.
A closer look reveals that serious crime has in fact been decreasing in Britain. Yet the closing of police stations, reduction in resources and the increasingly risk-averse style of policing has resulted in UK licensed premises being targeted and penalised.
This will have significant implications for the UK – both at the level of adults being able to enjoy a good night like our European friends – but also at the cost of turning what has been an extremely creative, adventurous and transformative business activity into a boring, theme-park styled middle-of-the-road offering. Many larger club venues have closed already and smaller venues are feeling the enormous pinch of the extra cost of security personnel, huge CCTV systems, ID scanner technology, and the solicitors' fees.
It is time we had a serious debate about how the night-time economy has contributed to our association with world class culture and helped attract tourism. We need to get a grip, calm down and stop limiting the potential of one of our most successful and important industries. After all, Britain doesn’t lead the world at all that much these days: it would be a tragedy if we let the combination of bureaucratic and risk-averse mentality kill off one of our few remaining business success stories.
Alan Miller is CEO of The Vibe Bar and Co-Founder of The Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. He will be talking at The Battle of Ideas on 'Policing the Night-Time Economy: killing the lads’ night out?' on 18th October.
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