Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Last year, London appointed a chief advocate for a 24-hour city. Now a major nightlife hub plans to impose a curfew, and opponents want to know why she won’t do more to stop it.
Will the last bar to leave Hackney please turn out the lights? This week, London has been reverberating with the news that this East London borough, which has been at the heart of the city’s nightlife culture for several decades, will ban all new bars and clubs from staying open after midnight on weekends, and 11 p.m. on weekdays. In Hackney’s Shoreditch neighborhood, the borough has doubled the size of a zone in which future bar licenses will be refused.
This ruling surely won’t be unpopular with everyone—by London’s standards, this is a fairly densely populated area and there’s always the potential for friction between the customers of bars and clubs and nearby residents, even though these groups heavily overlap. But nightlife advocates see it as a death knell for the area’s nocturnal vibrancy. A backlash against the local borough council has ensued, with many pointing out that the borough’s own public consultancy found 73 percent of respondents opposed the law change. As one magazine covering London’s night scene put it, Hackney just voted to “kill its own nightlife.”
Why is that such a big deal? Hackney has a very specific, high-profile status within London. It’s a heavily gentrified, partly ex-industrial inner district with a multifaceted identity. It’s the embattled home of a working-class community that’s being steadily displaced; the stomping ground of an emerging, wealthy creative class; a place of intense real estate speculation; and the hub of the various excesses of hipsterism. Just like Brooklyn in New York, Hackney is now a metonym for all of London’s urban transformation. When things change there, people take notice.
But the neighborhood’s status as a home for many of London’s late-night hangouts may be on the way out: The area has seen intense residential construction in places with busy nightlife—and that has led to growing community tension. Now facing the toughest nighttime restrictions of anywhere in London, tensions are increasing as critics of the ruling are planning a demonstration in Hackney on Friday. If there is any place in which London’s nightlife needs an advocate to fight in its corner, it’s here.
In fact, London is supposed to have just such an advocate: the City Hall-appointed “night czar.” That post is currently held by Amy Lamé, a New Jersey-born performer, writer, and presenter who has a long-standing reputation as the host and co-organizer of well-liked London LGBT events that straddle the line between nightlife and performance. Taking cues from Amsterdam’s “night mayor,” the night czar was supposed to be crucial to the implementation of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s vision of London as a 24-hour city. But while people against the curfew are staging a protest on Friday, Lamé has distanced herself from the controversy. Her first tweeted response to the ruling was simply that the issue wasn’t in her jurisdiction, nor the mayor’s.
Local authorities are responsible for licensing decisions, not the @mayoroflondon or the @nightczar. If you would like more information, here is a link to the Licensing Act 2003 https://t.co/Vjs8JAzDkl— Night Czar (@nightczar) July 18, 2018
When that response prompted further backlash, Lamé promised to set up an urgent meeting to discuss the ruling with Hackney’s mayor. The borough’s mayor said Lamé had been informed of the plans all along.
Odd given she's been consulted throughout the process. https://t.co/u7tfJUCbRv— Mayor of Hackney (@mayorofhackney) July 19, 2018
The fight over Hackney is unfolding as an emblematic struggle over nightlife across London, and people have expected the night czar to be on that frontline too. Her detachment—whether real or imagined—has sparked more criticism. Musician and DJ Four Tet accused Lamé and Khan of “failing to protect nightlife in London,” while a music producer and artistic director of a Hackney venue questioned the high salary of the position. Meanwhile, music paper NME published a column accusing her of “attempting to absolve herself of any responsibility for what she clearly knew full-well would be a disastrous decision.”
Is this harsh criticism justified? Is the night czar merely a scapegoat for frustrations created by others, or is this flare-up a sign that the position itself may be failing? It seems only fair to give the night czar’s office a chance to plead its case, but CityLab’s numerous requests for interviews since the role was announced in 2016 have either been ignored or rejected by city hall, citing her busy schedule. Examining the role’s record without her input is nonetheless worthwhile, not least because it can highlight what other cities could learn as they consider creating similar posts to help preserve or boost their nighttime economy.
A benchmark for London
To grasp why the curfew is such a hot-button issue, it’s important to understand just how central Hackney has been in ongoing debates about London’s transformation.
Hackney’s southernmost district, Shoreditch, was commonly cited in the 1980s as an example of urban blight, and became a tech hub and nightlife hotspot in the 1990s. The Victorian streets and post-war housing projects in the wider area were subsequently set alight by a flash fire of gentrification, making it a buzzing and deeply unequal place whose name cropped up almost daily in the media. Dive into any London-focused newspaper or magazine and Hackney’s name would be there, variously as a site of rioting, of gentrification strife, or as the location of a new restaurant.
The curfew rule could seriously change the nature of some areas of the borough, even if the transformation has long been underway. As existing Hackney venues with late-night licenses close—and some already are—no replacements will be permitted to take their place, leading the area’s night scene toward gradual but inevitable atrophy. It’s a process that many club owners feel the night czar and mayor should be doing more to prevent.
Last night Hackney Council voted for all new venues to close at midnight at weekends, despite their own poll of residents voting 84% against the measures. Why wasn't @amylame outside giving a press conference condemning the council? What is a @nightczar for?— Andy Peyton (@AndyPeyton) July 19, 2018
Defending night culture?
In her first comment on Twitter, Lamé said that the issue was effectively not in her domain. That’s technically correct: Such decisions do indeed lie with the borough, not with city hall. Nonetheless, people are asking what the night czar is for if not to be a fully engaged advocate shaping decisions to promote a 24-hour London.
Official answers to this aren’t easy to come by. Media coverage of the night czar concept—of which there is some—has tended to focus more on personality and broad mission statements than on the nuts-and-bolts of policy and procedure.
Last year, however, the city published its own vindication of the position by listing seven things the role had achieved in its first year. As a key document explaining the rationale for the role, it’s worth looking at closely, not least because the night czar herself cited it in defense of her role, in an article forwarded to CityLab by the city’s press office in response to an interview request.
The first achievement on the list: “Keeping Fabric open,” which refers to the successful appeal against the closure of Fabric, a large nightclub that was briefly shuttered in 2016 and became a cause célèbre. The legal team representing Fabric suggests a different story behind this assertion, telling CityLab via email that the club in fact was able to reopen because they launched and won a successful legal appeal in court. To their knowledge, they say, neither the night czar nor city hall played a role.
Next up is “scrapping Form 696.” This form was used by Metropolitan Police to assess the risk of live music events, and it initially required promoters to list ethnic groups likely to attend the event. It thus became notorious as a tool for racially discriminatory screening of musicians and DJs who are popular with people of color. London’s mayor did indeed scrap this form—he has power over the police—but as author Dan Hancox writes in his book, Inner City Pressure, the tipping point came after active lobbying in the press by Britain’s national culture minister and major news television news coverage.
Another achievement cited by the city is “Keeping the Joiners Arms site LGBT+,” a reference to an ongoing campaign to prevent a popular East London bar/club from disappearing as a queer hangout following redevelopment of the site around it. Campaigners with Friends of the Joiners Arms confirmed to CityLab via email that the night czar had indeed hosted a round table at city hall with interested parties, and say they appreciated that. They say they were nonetheless surprised to see Lamé listing this as a key achievement when their ongoing and highly active campaign has been waged for some time, and still has goals that are not fully realized.
Neither in nor out
Those expecting more from the night czar should understand the very real structural limitations of the position. The post has no actual executive power, nor does it have independence from city hall. It is backed up by a policy-developing Night Time Commission, though the panel’s first chair (also on the legal team defending Fabric) resigned last year, citing a lack of independence and administrative support from the city. But as part of a city hall team directly employed by the mayor, any night czar must inevitably toe the party line pretty closely, and not criticize city policy.
Then there’s the fact that London’s mayor has limited jurisdiction over what happens at night. The city’s boroughs control planning and licensing (and education, housing, and health); the Mayor of London only truly has direct power over transit and policing. He’s also the guiding force behind a city-wide master plan—one that’s essentially implemented by the boroughs. Mayor Khan’s ambitions for the city are thus highly dependent on these boroughs’ good will. The mayor suffered a setback recently, for example, when plans to pedestrianize the Oxford Street were overruled by the City of Westminster.
Furthermore, if any mayor intends to use the office as a springboard for a major role in national politics—as Khan’s predecessor Boris Johnson did—it’s in their interest to avoid friction with the real executive powers in the city.
This factor in particular creates a certain trickle-down quietism across all of city hall’s departments, as is on show with issues such as Hackney’s curfew. Allegiance to city hall may get the night czar a place at the table, but it does not seem to give her the chance to do much with it.
This isn’t how other nightlife offices work. Amsterdam’s night mayor, widely cited as a successful blueprint for the role, works for an independent NGO that allows the position to run counter to city policy, albeit constructively. Berlin’s Club Commission is a form of alternative business association, one that manages to mobilize on non-commercial issues thanks substantially to its host city’s highly unusual cultural positioning. San Francisco’s nightlife office, NightlifeSF, is in fact funded directly by City Hall, but it has a degree of executive power that gives it actual scope to instigate changes.
Does it matter that London’s night czar role seems underpowered? As a widely-liked personality with acknowledged roots in the city’s nightlife, Lamé at least provides a fairly visible public face for night culture. In London, places where people congregate at night are often feared and misunderstood by officialdom, and her presence must help give courage to some people in the nightlife community.
Furthermore, while Lamé has made it clear that actual licensing powers are not in her purview, her office has been producing work on some issues that matter. In the aftermath of the Hackney backlash this week, her office brought out new guidance designed to improve women’s nighttime safety—a plan tackling a vital issue, albeit a project whose effectiveness it is too early to assess.
The overarching problem—especially when you compare the night czar to more effective roles in mainland Europe—is that institutions that fail to meaningfully address their stated missions can end up masking the fact that insufficient action is being taken. So far, it seems that London doesn’t really have an institution that is managing to defend its potential as a 24-hour city. That institution can raise awareness. It doesn’t quite have the influence to effect change.