By David Bowden
Next time you wake up after a big night out with a sore head and an empty wallet, console yourself with one thought: you're part of a great British success story. The night time economy is worth around £66 billion a year and employs eight per cent of the UK workforce – and it is regenerating high streets and town centres across the country, in many cases bucking most other economic trends. It probably won't help dig you out of the depths of a hangover, but from Newcastle to Newquay, Britain's party-goers are making a healthy contribution to the well-being of the nation.
Yet not everyone seems to see it that way. The report Forward Into The Night, which was commissioned by the newly formed Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), says thriving nightlife is facing an unprecedented level of interference from officialdom. Its author, Frank Furedi, argues that bar-owners and licences are bearing the brunt of a "schizophrenic attitude" from policy-makers, who both relish the tax revenues and regeneration which a bustling nightlife brings but pander to traditional fears around young people enjoying themselves in an unregulated manner.
Punters have been able to see the effect of this attitude before their very eyes for some time now. Only last week, legendary Glasgow venue The Arches announced it was going into administration after being stripped of the late licence for its lucrative club nights, which subsidised its less commercially successful art projects. A host of popular bars have disappeared almost overnight in London over the past years, for reasons that have less to do with Crossrail and rising rents than heavy-handed legislation and often arbitrary threats of closure. Even playing the wrong type of music can get you into trouble. And attempts to legally challenge these decisions can be ruinously expensive.
Nor can you expect much in the way of privacy should you have to use a toilet cubicle. The omnipresent need to police drug use happily overrides the sort of comforts we take for granted in a free society. In some places even bending down to tie your shoelaces can result in a flurry of torchlight in your face.
Even more worryingly, every clubbers' worst nightmare – the over-zealous, pumped-up bouncer wanting to throw their weight around – are being empowered by this regulatory framework. Increasingly the demand is that venues should take responsibility for policing the streets around them. Local authorities are happily encouraging private security firms to take on the powers of police with none of the accountability. All this is based on some very dodgy stats: for all the claims of alcohol-related crime laid at the door of the night time economy, all evidence suggests that as a nation we are committing less crime and drinking less alcohol than ever before.
It's easy to offer a cynical shrug at many of these issues. Raver veterans of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 will hardly romanticise the good old days of actual policing of parties. Most discerning hipsters happily turned their backs on sanitised clubland in favour of the freedom of squat parties or guerrilla pop-ups. All power to them, but hundreds of thousands of others still want to come together at a Saturday night meat-market to get their crunk on – and all power to them too.
This should be an important political issue for us all: and not just because of the economic value of the night time economy. As Furedi's report observes, the revolution in the night time economy has been more culturally revolutionary than the relaxation of Sunday trading: around the world, the type of urban space we almost all long for are vibrant, 24-hour cities where public space pulses through the streets - not privatised and sanitised dwellings. Yet as London finally introduces a 24-hour Tube, so its local authorities become increasingly obsessed with regulating and micro-managing all perceived risks and harms of public life – from fining the homeless to hammering its revellers – that make these cities and towns what they are. It's worth emphasising that in the midst of the economic crisis, where living standards have been squeezed for most of us, authorities are seemingly obsessed with dreaming up new costs and prohibitions on our most sociable of pleasures.
It's important to recognise that this is a particularly modern trend - and it doesn't need to be this way. Yet the more acquiescent the public become in these debates, the more the urge to intervene and regulate grows. For all this, as Forward Into The Night emphasises, it's only in the fevered minds of police chiefs and hack documentary makers that you hear the assertion that town centres are 'no-go areas' during the weekend. Every indication is that for young people – and growing numbers of 40+ too – the night time economy is a much more fun and less desolate place on the weekend than thirty years ago. Now the fight is on to keep it that way.
David Bowden is associate director of the Institute of Ideas. He is chairing the debate Fight for your right to party? tonight at Bishopsgate Institute, part of the City of London Festival.
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