Yesterday there was troublesome news for Westminster’s drinking aficionados. The council has reportedly been planning to ban drinking outside for fear of Covid-19 spikes.
Although the council appears to have since u-turned on its decision, the debacle highlights a wider point about Britain’s nightlife. Pubs, clubs and bars desperately need releasing from oppressive regulation. Indeed, it was troubled business owners themselves that most resisted the move.
For much of the public, the plight of this sector is not an obvious problem. But the differences are stark between the UK and other parts of Europe, as to how regulated our bars are – with some of the lamest closing times.
It’s a reality that has challenged UK businesses for years, but will become even worse given the fragility of the industry under Covid-19.
One problematic type of regulation is the Late Night Levy, which was introduced in 2011. It allows councils to charge a tax on businesses which serve alcohol between midnight and 6am.
Even though there are nuances to how it can be applied – in 2017, the levy was changed so that councils can target “specific geographical locations” – it essentially punishes bars from staying open, rendering more flexible licensing laws largely redundant.
There’s also the Public Spaces Protection Order, introduced in 2014 under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. This is an awful piece of legislation, leaving it up to individuals councils to decide what activities they find problematic – and yes, that can include a couple of beers outside with friends.
Many people, particularly youngsters, will know all too well the effects of regulations on a practical level. It’s the bouncer telling you to stand closer to the pub, lest you accidentally touch a bit of a pavement (the horror!); the lights coming up in the bar when you’re in the middle of a drink, as well as the complete dearth of clubs in the capital.
Despite Sadiq Khan appointing Amy Lamé as his “Night Czar” in 2016 to give nightlife a boost, it’s not obvious how she helped at all – apparently more preoccupied with politically correct projects, such as a “Women’s Night Safety Summit”, whatever that is… Therefore it must fall upon the Conservatives to save the rave.
The Night Time Industries Association has fought hard to highlight the potential of this sector. It estimates that the industry accounts for over eight per cent of the UK’s employment, and £66 billion per year. The figures could be given an enormous boost all the more with reconsideration of the regulations.
One idea to boost trading was floated by Nicholas Boys Smith in ConservativeHome last month, who recommended that we should make it “easier, faster and cheaper for restaurants, bars and shops to trade on the pavement.” And why not? Anything we can do to spur these businesses on is vital.
All the more so because of the pandemic. It’s workers in casual jobs, such as bar work, that are most at risk. Businesses that employ them need all the support they can get – and some of that should be regulatory revisions, not threats from officious councils.
The counter-argument to this, of course, is that councils are simply protecting local residents from noise, disruption and the rest.
But I believe this concern has been over-inflated; we’re talking about “residential” areas such as Soho, whose nightlife is gradually being eradicated. The trade-off has gone too far, killing off fantastic economic opportunities to appease the noise-sensitive (who shouldn’t really live in busy cities anyway).
On nightlife we should aim to be more like Berlin, Barcelona and other parts of Europe – with a liberal attitude and competitive clubbing sector (the clubs in Ibiza are beautiful), all the more so when planning our post-Brexit future.
Part of keeping Britain as an attractive destination means having exciting places to go to on a night out. It is a huge draw to foreign students, who contribute much to our economy.
And frankly, the public deserves better than the current conditions. It’s ridiculous to have such early closing times, especially in the capital.
Boris Johnson has already promised a review into sin taxes, but the even sinful of us would like to know what’s happening to our pubs long-term.
Rethinking this sector isn’t only the right thing to do, it would be immensely popular among a nation that loves a pint and has had nothing but Netflix since March.
Bringing back the party, should be the Conservatives’ next move.