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Night and the city: can planning help protect night-time economies?

Words: Mark Smulian
Illustration | Neil Webb

Should licensing and planning be working in partnership to protect vibrant night-time economies? asks Mark Smulian

Older planners may not be habitués of fashionable dance music venues, but the furore over Islington council’s revocation of the Fabric nightclub’s licence in September may have caught their attention as this local dispute made national news.

The row over Fabric typified wider problems over the night-time economy and how to plan for it.

Most local authorities like the idea of an economically thriving evening and night sector of pubs, restaurants, music venues and cinemas - and will like it even more once 100 per cent local retention of business rates takes effect in 2020.

This can, though, bring noise, crime and nuisance. Squaring this circle would be complicated enough if only planning were involved, but so is licensing, a separate function with quite different priorities and approaches.

Fabric was internationally famous and closing it after police complaints about drug use brought down a storm of protest on Islington.

Some might therefore think clubs too much trouble, but the economic benefits of a well-managed night economy are considerable, and without one urban centres can appear deserted and threatening after dark.

Westminster City Council’s central area has the largest night-time economy in the UK, and a report last year illustrates the scale – other places would see a lot of money if they attracted just a fraction of this.  

The report by consultancy TBR said that in 2013 there were 3,875 firms involved, employing 43,925 people, with sales revenue of £2.5 billion.

Crime was high, the report concluded, but not disproportionately so given the numbers of people and premises, and it described the area as having “a highly successful micro-economy whose vitality must be of primary concern”.

No more 9 to 5

Perhaps the obvious thing is to plan for the night-time economy concentrated in areas distant from residential ones and to ensure that public transport is good enough that patrons disperse without nuisance.

What, though, if licensing committees decline to license premises, or revoke licences, in areas that planners have designated for the night economy?

Combining planning and licensing may look tempting but would be difficult because many aspects with which licensing is concerned have no bearing on planning – such as arrangements for keeping dangerous animals - and the professional backgrounds involved are quite different.

Philip Kolvin QC, a leading licensing barrister, has published a manifesto on securing a successful night economy (see below 'The Night Time Manifesto').

He says: “The way to do this is not to say we use planning for this and licensing for that, but to take a step back and say what sort of licensed activity do we want in our town or city? 

“There is the opportunity to create the place you want. Fewer of us work 9-to-5 so you need to devise a city that works for all times, and that has to proceed from principles, not guesswork.”

RTPI policy and networks manager James Harris has noted concern about planning for the night-time economy as a growing issue since the Fabric dispute.

“Planning is more concerned with growth whereas licensing is reactive,” he says. Harris thinks planning and licensing should work better together so that mixed-use areas work and the night-time economy works in a strategic way.

“Planning has been geared to the day economy, but the profile of the night economy is rising,” he adds.


The Late-Night Levy

One weapon that council's have to control the night economy is the 'late-night levy', imposed where alcohol is sold outside normal hours.

Newcastle City Council was the first to introduce this in 2013 and charges range from £299 to £4,400 a year, according to rateable values.

Under its 'Raising the Bar' scheme, a 30 per cent levy discount is offered to venues that become accredited for public order, noise reduction, safety and public health. So far 124 premises have signed up.

The levy helps pay for policing and council services such as street cleansing.


Probably little thought was given to venues when previous governments introduced both permitted development rights for conversion of offices to residential use, and encouraged the development of city centre living. Both, though, threaten venues because people who move into an area full of entertainment outlets may complain about noise. 

The venues, without having changed their noise level, can find licences under threat as previously empty nearby commercial premises become occupied at night by angry sleep-deprived residents.

People may be drawn by the ‘buzz’, but then find it buzzes rather too loudly once they actually live there.

Former Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors president Louise Brooke-Smith, who works as a planning consultant, calls the conflict between planning and licensing regimes “fairly archaic” – in particular where residential development takes place near to night economy venues.

Brooke-Smith thinks residents should have known better: “The problem of licensing is mainly about noise from venues and disturbance to residents’ sleep patterns. People need to sleep, but there is growing concern that this conflicts with the night-time economy.

“Our cities are being planned to have mixed uses with residential in the centre and people who move into places like that have to accept they are not living in a quiet rural backwater, and them moving in should not affect venues already there." 

“They should know what the area is like before they move in. I think the phrase is ‘caveat emptor’.”

Brooke-Smith says night economies became more widespread following the recession, when councils looked for ways to encourage growth and some smaller towns saw big cities did well from the night-time economy and decided to try to emulate them. 

“They thought ‘That’s fantastic, we’ll do that too’,” she says. “Thriving night economies are no bad thing; the centre of Birmingham used to be completely dead outside working hours but now it’s not.”

‘Patchy’ councils

‘Vibrant’ centres are usually judged desirable, but when does ‘vibrant’ become ‘nuisance’? This is the fine line venues must tread, says Beverley Whitrick, strategic director of the Music Venues Trust.

“We are in the bizarre position where people say they want vibrancy but the very vibrancy that attracts them soon sees them complaining about the noise caused by people enjoying the things which attracted them there,” she says.

The trust is promoting an ‘agent of change’ policy so that if homes are built near a venue then the ‘agent’ – the developer – must soundproof the venue.

“Our cities are being planned to have mixed uses with residential in the centre and people who move into places like that have to accept they are not living in a quiet rural backwater”

Whitrick says: “We did secure a change to the permitted development right in England that where an office is being converted to residential and there is a music venue nearby it has to go to the planning committee. We want that in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too.”

Councils are “very patchy” in their attitudes, she says, with Bristol City Council being supportive and “realising the value of music”, and the London Borough of Wandsworth has a policy to protect the cultural value of pubs. But Edinburgh City Council has “an inaudibility policy so that if any music can be heard outside the venue it can lose its liquor licence, which effectively closes it”.

A further problem is that dozens of licensing conditions can accumulate over time at venues: Whitrick cites one in Shoreditch with 27 licence conditions and notes that London’s historic 100 Club has an archaic – and probably unenforceable – condition that patrons must be ‘appropriately dressed’.

Alan Miller, chairman of the Night Time Industries Association, thinks bars and venues are treated unfairly by being held responsible by licensing authorities for personal misconduct not within their control.

He says: “Regulatory action is being taken over things the venue is not responsible for either inside or outside. We want to see individual responsibility. If someone misbehaves in a school, or airport, or hospital, they get prosecuted but the place doesn’t get closed down, but that is what happens with venues.”

The sheer economic scale probably means that councils will back night economies while seeking to minimise nuisance.

A Local Government Association (LGA) report this summer noted about a third of the alcohol industry’s £66 billion annual turnover came from town centres and that in 2015 there were 500 million visits to pubs, which generated one in six of new jobs for those aged 18 to 24. 


The Night Time Manifesto

  • Licensing barrister Philip Kolvin QC has issued The Night Time Manifesto, a set of principles upon which successful night economies can be built.

  • He says: “At the heart of every great town or city is a great night-time economy. As shopping progressively moves online, it is fundamental to the vitality and viability of our high streets. Without it, many of our city centre streets would be lonely and dangerous places at night.

  • “But night-time economies are like gardens. They need to be planned and tended. Otherwise they may grow wild or even decay.”

  • His proposals include that every town and city should: • Have an identified night-time champion;

  • Will produce a leisure strategy, with a vision for its night-time economy;

  • Will aim to integrate leisure and other uses to create bridges between the day and night-time economies.

  • Planning policies should recognise the value of the night-time economy and promote and protect it; and

  •  Licensing policies should promote the night-time economy vision and regulate by the least intrusive measures practical. 


“Supporting well-run premises, that do not contribute to local crime and disorder or public nuisance, is therefore beneficial to the local economy and to the community,” it said.

“Creating a mix of food-led premises, vertical drinking establishments and a late-night offer, in the proportions appropriate to the locality, can enhance a tourist offer and draw in visitors from surrounding areas.”

Ian Stephens, who chairs the LGA’s culture, tourism and sport board, says: “Licensing and planning should go hand in hand. The night-time economy should be set out in area action plans so you do not have situations where it is planned for an area but licences are not granted.”

Doing this requires planning and licensing to work together. If they don’t, councils will find the creation of thriving but nuisance-free night economies a contentious matter.


Illustration : Neil Webb