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.
The U.K. capital has been struggling to boost the vitality of its nightlife. One new plan: Encourage entrepreneurs to open more late-closing businesses.
In a bid to boost the city’s 24-hour vitality, London has launched its first experimental “Night Time Enterprise Zone.” Located in northeast London’s Walthamstow neighborhood, this dedicated strip will not just tolerate late-opening businesses—be they stores, bars, or non-commercial community meeting places—but actively encourage them with special funding and official advice.
The plan is starting small: The new zone covers just a single street, Walthamstow High Street, and has a modest start-up budget of £75,000 ($94,000) to cover the period from now until January. It could, however, be the pilot for a scheme rolled out across the capital. If successful, it might be a useful model for reviving other ailing neighborhood commercial strips and reversing a tide which has seen the U.K. capital’s nightlife, and general nocturnal vibrancy, under threat. Rising rents have forced many beloved pubs, clubs, and other establishments to close recently, a process (repeated across Britain) that’s been exacerbated by official hostility from many London boroughs—which hold more power over such matters than City Hall. Many local leaders view life after dark with suspicion and place regulatory obstacles in its way.
One notorious recent example: The East London borough of Hackney planned to impose a closing hour curfew on an area famous for its nightlife, despite overwhelming opposition to the measure from locals. London City Hall faced a backlash from many Londoners when its appointed officer intended to oversee and promote nightlife, the so-called Night Czar, failed to adequately challenge the Hackney curfew. Coming after a year in which pub closures have mercifully stabilized, the new Night Enterprise Zone might thus be seen as officialdom’s message to the city it represents that it does indeed take fostering and preserving nightlife seriously.
The new plan seems modest, but potentially effective. Focusing on the pedestrianized high street of northeast London’s Walthamstow neighborhood, it will cut much of the red tape and fees involved in starting a later-opening business. The local borough will itself hunt down potential late-opening sites within its borders and offer them at low cost to entrepreneurs.
To broaden the potential number of businesses able to take advantage of the scheme, London City Hall will publish a step-by-step guide leading applicants through the planning process. For business and community groups who want to meet after 6 p.m., there will also be funding for venue hire. A publicity campaign, plus locally distributed evening-openings maps and event listings, will encourage locals to shop later. Finally, the borough is running a “reclaim your high street” evening event, to publicize the fact that the zone is a part of the neighborhood people can and should return to.
Indeed, the night zone concept focuses heavily on turning around the fortunes of a commercial strip that, like many of its kind, is a little down on its luck. Right now, Walthamstow High Street is—just like many other similar urban shopping strips—not exactly thriving. Battered by the growth of online shopping and out-of-town malls, British high streets have been in a “downward spiral” for years, as the Guardian recently reported, with the British Retail Consortium estimating that, in Britain’s version of America’s retail apocalypse, one in 10 shops in town centers nationwide is vacant. Walthamstow is faring better than many: Located in a fast-gentrifying, formerly working-class neighborhood largely built up just before the First World War, the road already hosts Europe’s longest street market, so it’s not as if the area lacks any footfall.
After sunset, however, many shops close and the street largely shuts down, falling quiet and feeling neither inviting nor, in the absence of people, as safe as it could be. Without after-dark customers keeping stores busy, it’s harder for business to make rent and turn a profit. Complicating things further is the fact that many locals commute elsewhere in the city to work, meaning that many of the area’s more affluent customers are out of the neighborhood during the period when it’s most busy and inviting.
To be fair, Walthamstow High Street probably wouldn’t need much of a push to make it thrive. The surrounding area is lively, and while the neighborhood is a little further out of town than the curfew-hit, nightlife-heavy zone of Hackney, it is still in a corner of London that people associate with going out in the evening. Walthamstow is also on a Tube line that runs 24 hours at the weekend—a boon for bar owners.
It is, of course, far too soon to tell if the scheme will succeed in creating a diverse, successful ecosystem of places to hang out in the evening. It’s still a plan well worth watching for neighborhoods beyond London—and indeed Britain. As online retailers render brick-and-mortar shopping less significant, areas that once thrived on daytime retail face some difficult transformational challenges. Make a street into a community asset, however—into a place where people congregate for reasons other than buying stuff—and you’re more likely to keep it vital. Walthamstow High Street may not turn into (or want to turn into) a major nightlife hub, but if it’s to survive, luring a lively crowd after sundown will probably have to be part of the plan.