Hackney Nightlife

This week, members of Hackney Council voted unanimously to implement a licensing policy that puts new controls on the borough’s nightlife. A Special Policy Area (or SPA) was first implemented in Shoreditch back in 2004, with the intention of stemming the flow of new license applications by giving members of the licensing committee increased powers to refuse licenses. The council then implemented a similar SPA for Dalston in 2014 (despite 84 percent opposition in the public consultation at the time) and finally, in the most recent policy, it has doubled the size of the Shoreditch SPA. The new policy also has various restrictions on outside events and introduces normal closing times of 11 PM on weekdays and midnight at weekends for new applications, all opposed by a large majority of Hackney residents in the consultation.There is no way I would be able to open Dalston Superstore or Voodoo Ray’s under Hackney’s new licensing policy. SPAs are specifically designed to make it almost impossible for late licenses to be granted, and to deter operators like me from even making the application in the first place. We are a small, independent outfit, and we simply do not have the resources to take on the risk of applying for a license that goes against council policy.

We closed our club Dance Tunnel back in 2016 because of the Dalston Special Policy Area. It was not an easy decision, but the introduction of the SPA was the last straw for us. Our application for one extra hour on a Saturday night was made just as the SPA came into force. The license hearing did not go well. After limping on for a further two years, we eventually felt we had no choice but to call it a day. There just did not seem any point in continuing under such explicit opposition from the licensing committee to what we were doing. There was no way that we would get that one extra hour.

SPAs are designed to make it harder for late hours to be granted but also, critically, for members of the licensing committee to have a greater say in passing new licenses. Restaurants, theatres and cinemas are generally deemed appropriate. Nightclubs are not. The licensing committee is essentially the gatekeeper of Hackney’s cultural output, a prospect that does not fill me with confidence. SPAs do not address crime, disorder or nuisance (ask any Shoreditch resident), but they do give discretionary powers to a small number of people within the council to approve or deny applications as they see fit. I have no doubt that members believe they have our interests at heart, but the power of the SPA allows them to remake the borough according to their own prejudices.

There is no point in pretending that Night Time Economy areas are not messy, challenging and hard to manage. But this is London, and late venues are an important part of our city, and part of Hackney’s heritage. Simply casting late venues, by definition, as the problem is not the answer. Sometimes, like Plastic People, spaces can nurture new ideas, scenes, genres, which then get woven into our very identity as Londoners. And sometimes they are simply places where we go on a Saturday night.

Where do we go from here? The limitations of the GLA’s Night Czar role have been exposed by this whole mess. Amy Lamé was in communication with the Hackney Council throughout the consultation process, but she has no statutory power to influence the direction they decide to take. The Licensing Act of 2003 gives her opinion no weight on licensing policy, and I can’t imagine anyone is more frustrated by this than she is. Personal attacks on the Night Czar achieve nothing. The only people who have the ability to change the licensing policy are in the licensing committee, and they were all comfortably voted back into power in May’s local elections. If the council can’t be persuaded to voluntarily withdraw the policy, the only option is a Judicial Review on the result, showing that Hackney’s decision-making process was flawed. The local campaign group We Love Hackney, which is currently weighing its options, is the best resource for fighting the policy.

On Sunday mornings, when I’m walking my dog on Hackney Marshes, the thud of a kick drum from illegal parties has become a familiar soundtrack. I still get a rush of excitement from knowing that the spirit of acid house perseveres, but Hackney Marshes has no sound-proofing, no security team, no free drinking water, and certainly no safe-space policy. Hackney Marshes is a natural park with a diverse ecosystem and a Community Green Flag award. It’s not Berghain. Hackney’s club culture has been pushed back outside the law because we have failed to provide enough legal places for people to dance through the night. Hackney, London’s most innovative and creative borough, is denying people this experience, and we are all poorer for it.