When Brexit really starts to bite, and if we don’t have a deal secured, I don’t think the financial sector will instantly take flight, en masse, to Frankfurt, as the pessimists are predicting. Why? Because Frankfurt is rubbish for going out and having a good old party. And if there’s one thing City Types like, it’s having a party. Whatever market forces or monetary incentives start pulling the city’s brightest and best elsewhere, London’s clubs, bars and the vibrant infrastructure that supports them will make it a hard place to leave.
But this is no reason to sit back and relax. Our nightlife may have the competitive advantage for now, but without due care and attention, and with other major European cities looking to poach lucrative EU industries currently housed in the UK, in a few years it may be other cities’ nightlife drawing people overseas.
It is a worry that where Amsterdam and Berlin go to great lengths to celebrate and defend their nightlife, London and other UK cities are continually playing catch up. Amsterdam was the first city in the world to appoint a Night Mayor (Nacht Burgemeester sounds rather less ghoulish in the original Dutch), to officially act as an ambassador and defend the interests of the city’s night time stakeholders. Last year a German court declared the Berlin superclub Berghain as ‘High Culture’, a ruling that also slashed the club’s tax bill by over 60 percent.
Sadiq Khan has, for his part, overseen the eventual introduction of the Night Tube, instituted a Night Czar, and championed measures like the Agent of Change principle, that seeks to ease clashes between developers and venues. All this is part of his plan to turn London into a 24 hour city. Elsewhere, the picture is less optimistic, with night time venues at the mercy of councils that may are may not be supportive of their contribution to the local economy. Despite rumblings of support for a Manchester Night Czar during the Mayoral elections this year, an announcement for the position has yet to materialise from Andy Burnham’s office.
When Fabric was unceremoniously closed just over a year ago, the phrase “London’s nightlife is dying” popped up time and again. A staggering number of live music venue closures – over half since 2007 – lends credence to this view that nightlife in the capital is in terminal decline. But come to London for a night out and and the city is far from dead. If you live in a provincial town with a single club that closes at 1am, London at night dazzles, seven days a week. The same applies to Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and a host of other cities, which can boast a plethora of venues, big and small, mainstream and alternative, to keep every taste entertained.
But whilst these centres are far from dying (Fabric has now triumphantly returned), they are not in the best of health: the number of nightclubs nationwide has halved since 2007. Support for venues must go hand in hand with support for the people who frequent them. Their wellbeing is inextricably linked. Yet despite this, many councils and venues maintain a deliberate blind spot when it comes to addressing this sensitive topic.
Drugs play a central role in the night time landscape. While the majority of people stick to legal options, the consumption of cocaine, MDMA and other club drugs is a fundamental part of the experience for a sizeable minority. These substances are all too frequently the elephant in the room, mentioned only in the context of a tragically young death, or as a scapegoat for the revoking of a venue’s licence. Venues and events who want to do more to protect their customers have to engage in a logical fallacy, maintaining zero tolerance language and policies towards drugs while trying to shoehorn in pragmatic harm reduction measures via the back door, all the while remaining wary that such attempts could constitute evidence of tolerance of drug use by belligerent authorities.
The reality must be acknowledged: some people will take drugs in night time environments. The history of clubbing culture and the music that accompanies it, which the UK should be proud to have played such a leading role in creating, is inextricably intertwined with the drugs that accompany them. Indeed, attempts to drive drugs out of the night time environment are more likely to result in an rise in unregulated, illegal events, or simply an exodus of clubbers to other European cities, harming, rather than helping our own night time venues. Deaths due to ecstasy and cocaine are increasing year on year – in 2016 MDMA related deaths hit a record high of 63, up from only 5 in 2010. It is better, surely, to address this reality with solutions that make our clubs safer, and consequently, more appealing than illegal or foreign alternatives.
Other European nations are years ahead of the UK on this front – embarrassingly so. The Netherlands has a network of drug testing facilities located in the centre of almost every major city, having begun their testing programme back in 1992. When samples of particular concern are discovered, alerts are issued nationally and billboards displaying warnings installed in city centres. In December 2014, when Dutch testing services discovered Pink Superman ecstasy pills containing PMA, a similar but far more toxic compound to MDMA, alerts spread thought the country instantly, and no deaths occurred. In the UK, the same pills led to four deaths over the Christmas period. Similar city centre testing services exist in Switzerland, where results are returned to service users alongside a package of harm reduction information. The country has not had an ecstasy death in years.
For the current generation of clubbers, for whom Leah Betts’ name means little, the original harm reduction lessons learned by the rave generation must now be taught again, as drugs continually increase in purity and strength. Honest, pragmatic information is vital. Who delivers that information, and how, is key to its success. For the last two summers in the UK, a number a festivals have provided on site drug testing services through harm reduction organisation ‘The Loop’. While this has proved a boon for the safety of the festivals in question, the wider impact of such measures remains limited while such services are restricted to these events. Moving testing services into city centre locations, and harnessing the social media influence of venues, events and music industry figures to reach a new generation of clubbers could see a transformation in the safety of UK nightlife.
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Devising and implementing innovative ways to keep people safe must be a top priority of both councils and venues, with clear direction that this is endorsed from central government. Excuses are simply not good enough. Venues who claim their hands are tied due to zero tolerance policies, police who protest that everything in their power is being done to protect the public, and councils who are happy to turn on venues demonstrating best practice must come to terms with the reality of club drug use. Their refusal is at the heart of many tensions between police and clubbers, authorities and industry. Finding solutions that put all these stakeholders on the same side, working for a safer night time environment, is the first step to creating a healthier, honest dialogue about the night time economy. We need our nightlife more than we realise. No one will stick around to miss it when it’s gone.
Dr Henry Fisher is the Science and Health Policy Director at Volteface