The City That Likes an Early Night

How the image of London as a 24 hour city is a lie, and is another reason that it increasingly offers little to the young that it desperately needs to hold on to if it is to thrive as a major world city.

 As will come as no surprise to anyone who either lives in London or knows people who do, people are abandoning the city in droves. Either for other urban spaces in the UK or for abroad, London just doesn’t have the staying-power it once did for the under 40s, now well-and-truly priced out of the housing market and without any end to this madness in sight, moving on is becoming the more favourable option for many. As this demographic change develops it is yet another crisis facing the city. If current trends continue, London faces becoming a place where people move to for university at 18, then stick around for a couple of years before realising they can live a life with less expense, a shorter commute, with a general better quality of life and avoid living in an endless house-share with strangers somewhere else. Even people born and raised in the city – of which I count myself one – are now leaving, without the expectation of ever being able to afford or the desire to return. Just a few years ago I imagined I would live in London forever, like generations of my family before me had, but now the idea holds no appeal whatsoever.

In the space of three or so generations we’ve gone from the tight-knit familial London units that Young & Willmott wrote about in their seminal 1958 work ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ where people would live their entire lives in the same areas, and consider moving a few stops along the underground system to be a huge upheaval akin to moving to a different continent, to a totally disconnected and transient group with such little security in housing and so few networks within and ties to our areas that it’s now an expectation to have to move home on a whim every couple of years. Contributing towards this has doubtless been decades of government policy, such as the continuing privatisation and eradication of social housing, the removal of lifetime tenancies which can be passed through generations, the promotion of home-ownership above all other forms of tenure, London housing being seen as a safer way to store money by the global elites than using banks in a time of such worldwide financial uncertainty and – as this post speculates – the erasure of the city’s once-famous nightlife. How can a capital city survive where no one under thirty, unless they are lucky enough to own property, lives? What is there to keep people in London now?

We’re often told that London is a 24-hour city, where there’s always something to do. However, it’s a fallacy that London is “The city that never sleeps”. If anything, London is the city that likes to get an early night. The introduction of 24-hour licensing laws for pubs in 2005 was criticised and lauded in equal measure, but in reality has made very little difference. In the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster, for instance, there are zero places with 24-hour licensing. We’ve not seen a massive increase in binge drinking, and nor have we seen the development of a more continental (which always seems to translate as “healthier”) attitude to socialising and drinking alcohol. If anything, in the capital we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in places for people to socialise beyond 6pm since 2005. It is still rare for a pub in London to open beyond midnight, and deserted twilight walks around London’s landmarks are still possible. Despite how pleasurable these can be, they do not suggest a place with an exactly booming nightlife.

The weekend Night Tube which was finally introduced last year to much fanfare and celebration now appears to be more of an attempt to make the city appear as a vibrant non-stop area of entertainment to tourists, for many years befuddled as to why our elderly underground system shuts down at night while in other major cities they run constantly, rather than actually servicing a desperate need to transfer masses of people during the small hours. It’s now becoming clear that just beyond midnight there’s actually very little reason to be outside. Although it remains to be seen if she will actually be able to accomplish anything in her new role, the appointment by Sadiq Khan of Amy Lamé as Night Czar seems a bit like the establishment of a ceremonial position in the same way of the much-derided elected Police Crime Commissioners. It’s all very well having a job at City Hall created to sort out these glaring problems, but essentially pointless if councils and landowners are simply disinterested in changing the current situation, because a nightclub or anything open beyond normal working hours on their doorstep is about as welcome as a fracking plant.

Increasingly boroughs are deciding that instead of nurturing their night-time economy they are cracking down on pub and club opening times, and introducing draconian licensing laws which make the experience of going clubbing as fun as a trip through airport security. For instance, there is the recently reopened Fabric, where the council, having failed in their initial skirmish to be shot of the place last year, have now taken measures to ensure that the place goes out of business by increasing searches, making carrying ID compulsory, (bizarrely) banning 18 year olds, having a constant undercover police presence and numerous other measures to send the message to potential patrons that they should just keep away because if they do decide to come they’ll regret it. In addition to this there is Dalston, which owes its regeneration from a place non-locals would be scared to enter to one of the most desired places in the city to live in within the space of just twenty years off the back of its largely organically-evolved nightlife, now rejecting applications from new venues which wish to stay open late, and introducing new strict terms for existing licensees. I don’t need to list all the venues which have shut down in that area over the past couple of years (it’s been done in-depth elsewhere), but a walk down Kingsland Road now compared with five years ago shows how successful the council has been in “tidying up”, or sanitising, the area of music venues and vibrancy.

The fact that I have been unable to even think of something to do in the city involving socialising in the evening that doesn’t involve alcohol as the central pillar of it operating is another problem. A cinema, while a great place to go (the BFI is the main thing I miss about living in London), is not a social occasion. As a non-drinker, it’s something which really puts me off from going out at night. Pubs do not want people like me there taking up space. Inevitably, the only non-alcoholic drinks they serve are Coca-Cola or other soft drinks, and bizarrely they’re frequently nearly as expensive as booze. There’s been an increasing trend in the sale of low or no-alcohol beers over the past few years, but drinking them is not an option for me. As a country we seem completely unable to separate socialising from drinking, but that’s for a different post on a different blog.
We’re consistently told that London should be a city that is always open, but it completely lags behind all other major cities. As this situation deepens, and more young people leave, it will be interesting to see just who is the average permanent London dweller in ten years time, and how the city can function with a massive gap in the age group from mid-twenties to middle age.