In the wake of recent new laws and local-authority clampdowns, many industry folk have expressed serious concern about the future of our Saturday nights, and some have even decided to stop throwing parties altogether. Mike Boorman investigates whether it’s time to panic…
When the government’s Anti Social Behaviour, Crime And Policing bill recently became law, the outcry surrounding it reminded me of being at Stella Polaris festival in Frederiksburg Park, in the middle of Copenhagen, looking out at 30,000 people getting down to Leftfield, and marvelling at just how civilised it all was, and even better, that it was partly state funded. “Why don’t the authorities support the scene in England?,” I thought.
On reflection I concluded that maybe I should be careful what I wished for - that the government getting angry 20-odd years ago may have actually encouraged the spread of acid house and rave culture across the country as an act of rebellion, and even though it eventually found its way into the more regulated setting of nightclubs, perhaps the rave scene would have eaten itself completely were it not for the state intervention that basically made it a sustainable and taxable business.
So when I read Alan Miller’s excellent but gloomy article on R$N that explained the reasons why he decided to close Vibe Bar (in short: state intervention), I remembered the above and weighed into the debate that followed the article by telling people to just calm down a bit - that the scene had survived wars with the authorities in the past and perhaps was better for it, and what was more, even though the passing of Vibe Bar is a great loss indeed, maybe just maybe we need a bit of a ruck with the state every so often, just to get the creative juices flowing.
Things were not that bad, surely? That was the message I wanted to send. But having only fleetingly put events on myself, and having been too young to have properly experienced the history I was citing as evidence that there would be a positive future, I felt like a bit of a knob telling people that everything was going to be all right… it was only a guess.
So I did some interviews on the matter. Across the whole piece there’s comment from Alan Miller himself, Terry Farley, Tim Sheridan, Dave Beer and Bill Brewster; all people who have been an active part of the scene across four or five different decades, and all people who are still very much involved today. There is no comment from anyone in state authority, so there is plenty of unchallenged opinion, but this is not a forensic examination of the rights and the wrongs of state intervention; more an evaluation of what state intervention has done, is doing, and may do in the future, for the partying economy.
The discussion will be split into two articles. This one is essentially where the negatives are outlined - the challenges today’s scene faces from various different directions i.e. police risk aversion, the government’s new laws, local authority licensing, gentrification etc. And to better judge how the above issues may affect the future of the industry, next week’s article will try and put it all into some kind of historical perspective.
Alan Miller from Vibe Bar kicks things off:
“There’s been a sea change. 20 years ago when I used to go out and when I was growing up in London, people would have fights and there’d be running battles in the street, football violence etc… you see none of that today. So my point is, things have got far less problematic, far less incident-managed, yet there’s a mentality that there’s a problem from the get go.
“Police are being pressurised by their superiors and coming under the pressure of crime figures. And then you look into it and find out “what is crime?” and you find it’s often things like people losing their mobile phones or reporting them stolen so they can claim them on the insurance. They’ll come back to me and say ‘the crime figures are spiked because of all these people here, and it’s anti-social behaviour’.”
In recent times, there have been some pretty serious flash points in Alan’s locality of Tower Hamlets. 93 Feet East, just over the way from Vibe Bar, was raided and briefly closed as part of Operation Condor: the Metropolitan Police’s high-profile sting that saw 4,000 officers target over 5,000 London venues in just 48 hours.
The Met Police’s official video of the 93 Feet East raid, with a bit of overdubbing…
According to Alan, there was also a time when Tower Hamlets Council would not allow any TENs (Temporary Event Notices) beyond 1am across the whole of the borough. Add that to the government’s recent unveiling of the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime And Policing Act, and you’ve got enough state pressure for Vibe Bar to close its doors, deciding that it isn’t worth the hassle to carry on in the current climate.
One change to said-climate is the introduction of Public Spaces Protection Orders as part of the new act, which basically empower the authorities to issue a notice to stop an event. Paragraph 188 of the act is probably the most relevant:
"The two-part test for issuing a notice will be that the police or local authority reasonably believes that there is, or is likely soon to be, a public nuisance or there is, or is likely soon to be, disorder in the vicinity of, and related to the premises; and that the notice is necessary for preventing the continuation or occurrence or reoccurrence of such disorder or behaviour (section 76(1)). For example, closing a nightclub where police have intelligence to suggest that disorder is likely in the immediate vicinity on a specific night or over a specific period."
The phrase ‘or is likely soon to be’ does essentially allow for the kind of events that we might enjoy of a weekend to be kiboshed in a pretty arbitrary fashion. Tim Sheridan weighs up the new law.
“The nature of a lot of these things is that they happen all the time unchallenged and unheard of unless you are politically aware. One of the reasons I really don't like Russell Brand is nothing to do with him personally - it's that politics, like everything else, has become so reliant on the media and lately celebrity. If it's not a Social Media meme or on Brand's personal agenda people don't know about it. And they don't want to know.
“I think basically the law exists as and when it's needed and generally serves the wealthy anyway. It serves both as posturing and by association fear-mongering as well as actual tools for future prosecution. We had a chance to fight and as usual did nothing. And if we continue to do nothing it will stay.”
No drinking beyond 1am in Tower Hamlets is a strong line in the sand, but in a nation-wide context, if the law is to be a real threat to the industry, it will have to be consistently applied on the ground. Is there actually enough will to cripple the business?
“For me it's rarely the coppers on the ground or really even people like the hated Environmental Officers that are the 'enemy’,” says Tim. “They are usually just humans doing a shit job and I 100% find them easy to get on with too if you treat them like people. It's the top-end suits and the politicians and the dark deals done about property who are killing not just culture but… jesus… just killing everything. Bastards.”
“Let’s be honest, many people in this country who are under 30 have tried drugs, and many like or know someone who likes dance music, so you’ll have loads of coppers who fit into this who aren’t really that bothered. They’ll be more interested in catching some wrong ‘uns who are robbing people or whatever, but they’ll sometimes get sent out to do stuff like shutting down parties and they probably think it’s a pain in the arse.
“Most of the time it’s a game. We know the rules of the game, and the rules of the game are weighted in their favour, and it’s not always fair but we know that sometimes, what we’re doing is illegal. A lot of the people into acid house in ’88 were soul boys who just saw the police as something to get around, rather than ‘the enemy’. Even football hooligans. They saw the police as something to quietly get around.”
It’s important to point out that an institution like Vibe Bar was not attempting to do anything illegal, but Terry Farley’s wider point about ‘the game’ is an important one to consider when processing the fairness/unfairness of a new law. As long as the game is obeyed, your average raver or club promoter is probably about as low on a policeman’s agenda as your average fox hunter, whatever the law might actually say.
Alan Miller again:
“I want to get the balance right here. I don’t just want to say the police are getting tougher and clamping down on everything. I actually think there’s been a collapse in authority, not just in the police but across a whole host of institutions, and during the riots we saw it. The fact that kids who were not political were smashing windows and just taking things, and no one could stop them, that’s an enormous problem."
“But now you’ve got a situation where authorities are trying to pre-empt a load of things with the phrase ‘anti-social behaviour’, like, what does that even mean? Shouting too loudly? Wearing the wrong clothes? It’s such a nebulous term.”
And this really is the key point - or at least the one that looks like the biggest threat to the business of late-night partying - it’s the pre-emptive element of it all.
“When there’s more people coming to an area, there’s often this knee-jerk reaction saying ‘how do you get less people in the area?’… that’s been the approach of the licensing people and the police. And then they think about how they can reduce the number of people so they decide to restrict the clubs by imposing curfews.
“There’s been research in places like Glasgow which shows that if you put everywhere on a curfew of 1am, that doesn’t help anybody. If anything it’s more likely to increase problems because it puts pressure on cabs, on the police etcetera.
“On Brick Lane we’ve had restaurant owners being asked ‘are you searching people on the way in?’, and they’re looking at them saying ‘what are you talking about?!? - we’re a restaurant!’”
But you don’t have to go very far from these restaurants to find an abundance of late-night action with thousands of people packed into warehouses, partying on to 6am or even later in some cases… and it’s all legal. So beyond one local authority in clampdown-mode, have things really got harder? Tim Sheridan has some views.
Tobacco Dock: One of the fashionable warehouse venues in the capital
“When access to the law costs money, it's harder. I was part of the early wave of East-end warehouse parties around 2001 to 2005 and in those four years it went from pretty much unregulated do-as-you-please to being utterly scrutinised and penalised.
"The real currency in modern society is gossip and status, not recourse to the law and money. If you make enough noise they have to make noise in return."
“The law that they bring down upon you is only a part of commerce anyway. They want to make you pay for it and ideally pay them. Yes councils made it harder but only in a relative sense that it was so easy previously and I personally have never had a problem with paying for proper toilets, personnel and safety issues etcetera.
“The legitimising of it makes it way easier to do, it just costs loads more. There is a sort of goldilocks space in the life of it where it's both a bit edgy and risky legally but also new and fresh. When you come back to a venue that you were one of the first to use 12 months past and not only has there been two or three johnny-come-latelies in there since, the venue owner has cottoned on and quadrupled the terms... it's time to sack it off innit?!?”
Alan Miller takes up the point:
“I don’t want to overstate all this - we’re not living in a Stasi state. But it’s become a very bureaucratic response that’s stifling business. Restrictions restrictions restrictions. Drowning people in paperwork.
“The police don’t necessarily want to do this I don’t think, but they’re having their resources stripped away and the state is shifting the burden onto private enterprises. So policing is going to be more and more incumbent on private groups. No one voted for that, in fact people voted against having private policing for all the right reasons because they’re not accountable etcetera but actually, by default, that’s what we’re going to end up having if it’s venues’ own security firms that are basically responsible.”
The final point is certainly cause for alarm for any venue owner or event organiser, especially if they still remember David Cameron’s “Big Society” being championed at the same time as unprecedented levels of cuts in public services.
The prime-minister ponders where that idea disappeared to
But someone whose job doesn’t depend on it could argue that somewhere like Vibe Bar will inevitably be replaced by another venue/scene in an area that is in an earlier part of the cycle. Perhaps Alan Miller’s unfortunate experience is merely part of the Groundhog Day of market forces and money that shapes cities the world over, which begins with an area emerging from nothing as a partying destination, then moves onto the likes of Tim Sheridan being fleeced by property owners cottoning onto it; and eventually ends when the police and local authorities try and minimise the cost of keeping a lid on it all, via a big increase in house prices and rent.
It’s impossible to prove just how much state intolerance of the night-time economy is purely financial, how much of it is moral, or indeed, how much of it is financial masquerading as moral when regeneration turns in to gentrification; but in pursuit of trying to understand how good or badly we’ve got it, it’s probably more relevant to compare the Tower Hamlets/London experience to that of other cities.
“So England is pretty much where you'd expect it to be on the tolerance-o-meter,” says Tim Sheridan. “Pretty much at the bottom end. Although if you draw concentric lines out from London it gets proportionally looser, like a national fun-sphincter."
"I'd rather spend a wet Wednesday in Leeds than a Saturday in London in terms of pure crowd vibe, and by the time you get to Scotland or Ireland you don't even have your trousers on.”
Dave Beer has done his time as part of the Leeds branch of the sphincter, with 20+ years of Back To Basics under his belt:
“The police actually raided us early on because they didn't understand what was going on, but the local council were brilliant. They wanted to do this 24hr Leeds thing, so they were fully behind us. There was this politician - 'The Disco Granny' they used to call her - called Lorna Cohen, and she basically spearheaded the whole thing. So clubs in Leeds were getting better licenses and later licenses than anywhere else.
“They're clamping down on it now. It built the city, you know? You'd have students coming here just because of the nightlife, and that built the city. But now they're not backing it how they should be.”
“Venues are always coming and going in London. We lost The Cross when King’s Cross was extending, we lost The End, Turnmills is now flats, and the clubs that opened in Shoreditch are now under pressure because of noise because of the posh people who moved into Shoreditch. Now it’s getting pushed out to Hackney Wick etcetera because the police are allowing things there because it’s a shithole surrounded by not much. But then eventually when that gets developed, the police will start clamping down.
“It’s just the same as what happened in New York. If you lived around The Sound Factory, would you want to be seeing loads of hookers at 11 in the morning, selling meth on the streets? No, you wouldn’t. But if you visited for the weekend you thought that was fucking brilliant.”
“What people call gentrification I generally think is a really good thing, which is improving infrastructure, housing stock, employment, people coming to the area. But there’s a bigger problem which is we don’t build enough houses in the UK - we could do with 5 million over the next three years, but no government is going to put its back into that. It looks like the coffee shops and all that take the blame for what is a bigger problem of rising house prices and retail rents.”
It’s probably no coincidence that in the much-revered party destination of Berlin, the opposite is true. An abundance of empty/cheap buildings after the wall came down helped their creative scenes thrive, and the low percentage of home ownership across Germany and generally calm housing market, by default, weakens one potential driver of urban gentrification. The economic challenges to the scene appear so much more engrained in this country, but that isn’t going to stop Alan Miller lobbying for change.
“Me as the Vibe Bar, that’s just one venue, it doesn’t matter too much I guess. Obviously there are some great memories. But 100 venues in Tower Hamlets that generate a certain amount of money and regenerate an area… that’s an issue. 10,000 in London is a problem. 100,000 across the UK, that’s suddenly a serious issue… 10% of our employment. So I think there’s a series of different places that this has to be presented to; the public is one, also local planners, politicians etcetera.
“I’m putting together a group with a few people that I’m going to be announcing soon. We’ve already got some of the key players in London on board, and we’re going to go across the country with bars and nightclubs and restaurants and we’re going to have a proper conversation with people.”
He’s dead right - it certainly is a conversation worth having - so next week, part 2 of this particular conversation will turn towards matters of history, and whether past battles with the state can help rationalise the situation the industry finds itself in today.
Article: Mike Boorman, follow him on Twitter.
The iconic lead image kindly used by Paul Massey. "It's a great photo and one I am very proud of (although it did result in a night in the cells)."