Edgy city

London Essays – Issue 6: Night

Edgy city

The Chief Executive of Croydon and member of the Mayor’s Night Time Commission says that, when night falls, the most exciting things may happen on the outskirts.

By Jo Negrini

We live in a non-stop world and our economy has to reflect this. A town that shuts up shop at 7pm just isn’t trying hard enough: its neighbours will quickly snap up the lost trade. That’s a lot of potential business: you’d be crazy to close the door on a share of the £66 billion the night-time economy is estimated to be worth in the money generated from pubs, clubs and music venues, theatres and cinemas, restaurants and cafes, gyms, hairdressers and beauty parlours, cab firms and public transport, and late-night shopping.

The value of this night-time economy has been well-documented in cities across the globe, with the acknowledged benefits including more jobs, reduced pressure on transport links at peak commuting times, a sense of community, a decreasing fear of crime – and, of course, from a public finance perspective, more income from business rates. Not to mention the perception and reputation of a place, because an area’s nightlife often defines its personality.

By day, many places feel very similar – the suits and ties might vary in shades of black, blue and grey but, essentially, things are the same. It’s only when darkness descends and the party frocks come out that you can really get a sense of what makes your town or city tick and what makes it a great place to be.

Placemaking studies have long concluded that what happens in a place (or doesn’t) is more important than the physical environment. But if we can develop great buildings and friendly public spaces that enable events and allow people to gather, we can enable a booming night-time economy that will attract good businesses wanting to hire good staff, creating a virtuous circle of customers and capacity for new venues.

London as a whole is renowned for having a great offer 24/7, and I’m proud to sit on the Mayor of London’s Night Time Commission. We’re still in the talking and debating stages, but I can already sense a very real shift in attitudes as the people who make the decisions realise just how crucial it is both to protect our existing evening economy, and, at the same time, to nurture new businesses and creative enterprises.

Right now, many parts of the capital pulse with activity pretty much around the clock, and people come to live, work and visit for exactly that reason. But it’s not a consistent picture across the boroughs – or even within some of them. Policies differ, as do attitudes of local businesses and residents. And that can create a minefield for businesses looking to trade late or around the clock.

Many local authorities – I include Croydon in this list – are asking themselves the question: “How do we create a successful night-time economy in our town centres?” And then there’s often a lot of head-scratching.

My own view is that we have to rephrase the question slightly and ask: “How can we create the right environment for a night-time economy to develop and flourish?”

It may seem a fine distinction, but the reality is that councils are not in the business of running clubs, restaurants or late-night hairdressers. We’re not going to create anything directly when it comes to trading through the night. We are, however, in the business of setting rules – or maybe I should say in this context, exploring the benefits of softening or removing them. We’re also in the business of improving the quality of the built public realm. And we’re certainly in the business of keeping streets clean and, with the co-operation of the police, safe.

So what we have is a classic case of ‘top-down and bottom-up’.

Local authorities and the police sit at the top. We can cascade rule changes and regeneration schemes down to our town centres but we will never directly create the sorts of activities and businesses that we want to see thrive. That’s the ‘bottom-up’ job of the entrepreneurs and promoters who form the grassroots of the various night-time economy industries.

At the first Music Cities conference last year an ex-Hacienda promoter, Dave Haslam, summed this up nicely. Dave told the delegates from more than 50 cities around the world that cultural activities can’t be left to big businesses and local authorities – because the only way to deliver events that will really change people’s lives is to be different, to make mistakes, to take risks and be passionate. These things are all anathema to the majority of corporations and government departments.

Another speaker at the event described the way in which Liverpool had transformed because the council handed over control. He explained that the city has gone from being seen “almost universally as a dump” 20 years ago, to being widely thought of as a thriving centre for creativity and the arts.

How had this been achieved? Simply by the council’s stopping trying to do things themselves (particularly city-centre festivals) and instead creating the right environment for imaginative mavericks to be supported in making new events successful.

Our first role in local government – if we want to see night economy entrepreneurs succeed – is to understand the often harsh realities of running a business that operates in a competitive marketplace on tight margins. And then we need do what we can to make entrepreneurs’ lives easier.

It’s not just about financial support, particularly in the current climate; but I do like the way that, in Adelaide, the city has recognised that funding for creative proposals and projects is made available based on sound business strategies, as well as on artistic talent. The city initially supplies grants, but funding decisions themselves are left to members of the local music community. They are the ones who get to judge where the money goes and how it is spent. Right now this isn’t something we can replicate on any scale. But it’s worth noting that this principle has also found favour in Germany.

Indeed, in cities like Mannheim and Berlin, government departments have been restructured to bring culture and the arts within the same funding framework as traditional businesses and industries. This has seen significant economies of scale within the bureaucracy of government and also huge amounts of extra money going into businesses that develop talent, create interesting jobs, regenerate areas, and enhance overall liveability.

Down here in Croydon, our big cultural business ventures have involved investing in a huge pop-up food, drink and events space, via a loan to Boxpark; creation of the TMRW tech hub and coworking space; support for a number of successful craft beer festivals; and the borough’s first Pride event.

We are also about to refurbish the Fairfield Halls with a £30 million makeover; Surrey Street Market is being massively upgraded; and we’re celebrating a Croydon band, The Damned, who were the first to release a true punk single. We firmly believe that big interventions like these can complement smaller grassroots businesses, disrupt the status quo, and kickstart some massive changes.

I also applaud the efforts of Mark Davyd and his colleagues in the Music Venues Trust who have campaigned, among other things, for UK planning legislation to adopt the Australian model of ‘agent of change’ rules, a simple and commonsense approach to the increasing trend for late-night venues to come under threat as a result of noise complaints from residential neighbours in new developments nearby. In Adelaide, the solution has been to put the onus on the incoming developer to introduce upgraded sound insulation, rather then burdening long-established venues with crippling costs.

There is a careful balance to be maintained to protect the interests both of evening businesses and of residents who live nearby. On the one hand, we want to see and hear bustle and noise, because that’s a sign of a successful, flourishing hub of creativity and culture. But at the same time, we have to recognise that this can pose a very real nuisance if not properly controlled.

Amsterdam’s Night Mayor undoubtedly had this at the forefront of his mind when he was elected to the post and the city’s approach certainly seems to be working.

Areas once seen as trouble hotspots have had a sense of order restored, without being sanitised out of existence. Police remain on duty, but they are adopting a more community-based approach, working alongside young stewards, so it’s more like the sort of presence you might expect at a music festival. They talk to revellers in their own language, help out where they can, and provide both eyes and ears for the nearby police and a sense of non-authoritarian reassurance for visitors.

So what is Croydon’s message to London when it comes to the economies of the early evening and the night? Put very simply – watch this space.

We are a town that has changed and morphed with the decades. A lot of history was swept away in the excitement of the 50s and 60s, but out of that was born a cultural melting pot. We can lay claim to having produced the first punk single in the late 70s and to being the birthplace of dubstep a couple of decades later.

Movements like these can’t begin in the centre of big cities. There is too much cultural inertia. It’s only in the bars, cafes, clubs and workspaces on the edges of London that there is truly room to experiment and try new things. Croydon aims to embrace this spirit of exploration and adventure. By doing what we can to nurture businesses that want to trade through the night, we’re determined to see the town buzz once again from dusk to dawn.


Illustration by Lucinda Rogers