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London's future... nightlife

What makes a successful city? Good housing provision, a strong economy, reliable public transport, efficient health system – all are important. But what about a vibrant nightlife? As part of our City Now City Future series, journalist James Drury asks if London can keep partying through the 21st century.

James Drury

28 November 2017

Explore a London punk rock masterpiece at The Clash: London Calling, a free display at the Museum of London from 15 November 2019.

Henry Grant.

Modern Jazz Band playing at the Regent Street Polytechnic, 1962

© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London

London has long catered for the entertainment needs of its population. From the 1930s, when places such as the Caravan Club in Soho were a hideaway for the LGBT community, through the 'swinging sixties', to when nightclubs such as The End, Four Aces, Plastic People or Bagley’s were homes for underground music that would later go on to dominate the charts.

Now, London is Europe’s music capital. Data from Songkick, published by IQ magazine, shows that in 2016 there were 19,940 live music events in London – more than San Francisco (13,672), Paris (11,248) and Chicago (11,224), and more than the self-described ‘live music capital of the world’, Austin, Texas (6,781).

The World’s 50 Best Bars awards puts four of the top 10 in London – indeed the best bar in the world (The American at the Savoy) is here. And the pubs, bars and restaurants are responsible for almost 100,000 jobs

Henry Grant.

Jazz band and singer performing at the Hammersmith Palais, 1951

Photo Henry Grant. Opened in 1919, the Palais was a popular venue for jazz and dance until the 1980s. It eventually closed in 2007.

Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a traditional pub with regular club nights, such as Saturday's very popular Duckie. Between 1661 and 1859, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was the biggest outdoor entertainment space in the UK, offering live concerts, opera, hot air balloons, tightrope walkers, bearded ladies, acrobats, wandering minstrels and massive firework Amongst the thronging crowds you could find Royalty, rogues, prostitutes and pickpockets. Luminaries such as Pepys, Dickens and Hogarth immortalised the place in writings and paintings but after their 18th century heyday the gardens fell into disrepair when the new railway line carved them in two and cut most of the Gardens off from the Thames. In 1863, 4 years after the whole site had been sold for a measly £800 the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was built. The RVT immediately became the focal point of the local working class community and music hall and variety acts from all over the country came to perform on it’s stage.

Royal Vauxhall Tavern; 2009

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was built in 1863 on the site of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, once the biggest outdoor entertainment space in Britain. The Tavern continued to host raucous nightlife, from 19th century music hall acts to modern day club nights.

But this apparently rosy picture is under threat. London’s exploding property prices are piling pressure on this vital part of our city life. The Mayor of London’s figures show the capital has lost 40% of its live music venues since 2007 and over half the nightclubs have closed.

Under particular threat are the grassroots music venues, the vital pipeline for the UK’s globally-hailed music industry. In the last 10 years, 35% of these crucial spaces have shut.

As more housing is built to accommodate the growing city, nightclubs and venues are threatened with losing their licences over noise complaints. Ministry of Sound has been in long running disputes with numerous developers seeking to build flats near its Elephant and Castle site. The futures of venues such as The Bussey Building and The Troubadour looked dicey for a while due to plans for development, although they are secure for now.

The Windmill is a pub and live music venue in Brixton, London, with a reputation for championing new music. The pub was built in 1971 for the adjacent Blenheim Gardens housing estate. It went through various phases of being a bar that attracted locals, bikers, the Irish community and by the end of the 1990s it was hosting DJs, poets and the occasional live bands. Around 2002 the Windmill shifted focus onto live music.

The Windmill Bar Brixton, 2009

A pub and live music venue in Brixton, London, with a reputation for championing new music.

CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Ministry of Sound, 2016

The Box, main room. Creative Commons CC BY-SA.

Time is being called on pubs in London: they’re closing at a rate of 81 a year, according to the Mayor of London. As property prices rise across the city, the temptation to realise the value of the land underneath the pubs is becoming too much for some owners. The cost of rents is putting paid to others.

Everyone has the right to a good night’s sleep, and the needs of residents are just as important as the nightlife businesses near them. Striking an appropriate balance is the key to unlocking all the benefits of a healthy night time economy.

But this isn’t just about going out and having a good time. London’s nightlife is vital for its economy and position in the world.

Research by EY shows the night time economy supports 723,000 jobs – one in eight in London. Projections expect this will deliver an additional £1.63billion a year to the economy by 2026, and by £2 billion a year by the end of that decade as another 66,000 jobs are added.

The Round House is a Grade II listed engine shed in Camden which was renovated in the '90s to give local youngsters a multi-purpose space in which to showcase art, drama and live music.

The Round House, 2009

This Grade II listed engine shed in Camden was renovated in the 1990s, creating a multi-purpose space to showcase art, drama and live music.

In 2016, the 3.6 million tourists attending music events in the capital generated a billion pounds for the economy, according to UK Music. Thriving and exciting live music, nightclub, and bar and pub scenes help London to attract and retain the best talent. For many people, it’s the culture that made them want to work here, and it’s what keeps them from going to New York, Paris or Berlin instead.

Before the Brexit vote in June 2016, many European cities were already challenging London with their progressive night-time economy policies. With the UK’s departure from the European Union on the horizon, these cities are ramping up their activities to lure people away from London – whether for the weekend or for work.

The entertainment sector is an important part of not just the capital’s economy, but its cultural power too. How do we ensure it grows in a sustainable way for everyone?

Things are off to a good start. The appointments of Night Czar Amy Lamé and Philip Kolvin QC as chair of the Night Time Commission have shone a light on nightlife. The two are generating debate around what kind of nightlife we want in London.

Plans to protect nightclubs and music venues against noise complaints from people who move into new homes built nearby are making progress. The Agent of Change principle, which puts the onus on developers and new residents moving near to existing music spaces, is set to be included in the next London Plan. Since the Rescue Plan for London’s Grassroots Music Venues launched in 2015, the rate of closure of live music venues has levelled-off. Fewer closed in 2016 than at any time since 2007.

Elsewhere, the borough of Wandsworth has used planning regulations to remove permitted development rights for 120 of its 177 pubs, meaning they can no longer be converted into mini-supermarkets, estate agents, homes or shops without the need for planning permission.

The Coronet in Holloway is a conversion of an old cinema into a pub. The front of the venue remains much as it would have done when functioning as a cinema.

The Old Coronet Cinema, 2009

The Coronet in Holloway is a conversion of an old cinema into a pub.

But there’s more to be done. In order for our nightlife to thrive in the decades to come – with all the benefits a 24-hour city brings – we need to plan for the night as we plan for daytime activity. This means rather than being an after-thought, the needs of night-time businesses should be considered by local authorities in all their strategies.

Group of young clubbers outside The Blitz club, Covent Garden. The Club is widely regarded as being the birth place of the New Romantics in the early 1980s and those who frequented it were known as 'Blitz Kids'. This photograph is thought to have been made on the closing night of the club in September 1981.

Outside the Blitz club, Covent Garden, 1981

Dick-Scott Stewart. The Blitz Club is widely regarded as being the birth place of the New Romantics in the early 1980s and those who frequented it were known as 'Blitz Kids'.

In Berlin, the Creative Footprint initiative advocates for the protection of creative spaces by collecting data to calculate their impact on, and value to a city. The findings help decision makers at local authority level make informed choices.

In Amsterdam, an initiative on city centre hotspot Rembrandtplein, devised by the Night Mayor Mirik Milan, aims to improve harmony between the nightclubs, clubbers and local residents.

The city's nightclubs have increased their opening hours, to prevent a mass of people spilling onto the street at the same time. But the programme also includes funding for 20 ‘Hosts’ who patrol the area, chatting to clubbers and dealing with potential anti-social behaviour and noise. As a result, nuisance reports are down 30%, and reports of violence are down 25%.

It’s by planning for the night-time, rather than just being reactive when there’s a problem, that we enable our cities to be truly 24-hour. That means licensing, regeneration, community safety, cultural bodies and health services need to work together, to ensure everyone feels the benefits of extending opening hours, and that residents get to sleep – whatever time they go to bed.

James Drury is writing in a personal capacity. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum of London.