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Review licensing rules to prevent further Fabric closures - experts

Words: Simon Wicks
Fabric nightclub

Leading figures in licensing, planning and property have called for a review of the night venue licensing system in light of the closure of Fabric nightclub, and threats to other music venues in London and other major cities.

Speaking at Sound Development, a property and music industry conference in London on Tuesday, Philip Kolvin QC said “It’s absolutely atrocious sometimes how quickly the focus of regulation will come down and try to revoke licences. The outcome will be that people will not invest in night venues in London.”

The head of Cornerstone Barristers added: “The big problem is that the entire Licensing Act is framed negatively. What we don’t have is the means to balance out the desire to prevent crime against the economic benefits. We have got to find a better way of achieving that balance.”
Between sessions, Kolvin suggested that if the licensing function of local authorities were merged with the planning function, many issues with night venues could be more easily anticipated and resolved.

Fabric nightclub in Smithfield, London, was closed temporarily following the drug-related deaths of two teenagers earlier this year. On Tuesday night, Islington Borough Council’s licensing committee decided to revoke the world-famous club’s licence after 17 years, on the grounds that it had failed to get to grips with a drug culture on its premises.

Many speakers at the conference, organised by Sound Diplomacy, were critical of the Fabric licence suspension and closure threat, arguing that the means by which local authorities and police handled issues within the night-time economy were mostly blunt and outdated.

The general thrust was that there was a lack of recognition within legislation and culture of the social and economic benefits to cities of a healthy night-time culture. According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s office, in the last eight years London has lost 50 per cent of its nightclubs and 40 per cent of its live music venues.

"Often the value of the night-time economy isn’t recognised by either licensing or planning"

Andrew Russell, senior strategic planner to the Greater London Authority noted that this closure rate was driven by a combination of regeneration schemes, permitted development rules and noise complaints as a result of both regeneration and permitted development.

A failure within legislation and policy to develop resolutions to the problem of disturbance, such as the often mooted “agent of change” principle, meant that local authorities had few tools with which to deal with problems presented by some aspects of the night-time economy.
In particular, a “fragmented approach” to managing urban centres at night was exacerbated by the separation of local authority licensing and planning functions.

“Often the value of the night-time economy isn’t recognised by either of those two policy frameworks [licensing and planning],” Russell observed.

Fabric nightclubHe continued: “The London Plan has a broad approach to culture but doesn’t explicitly mention music venues. We conducted a survey of boroughs and we were quite shocked by the very small number that had strong policies on music venues and positive policies on the night-time economy and how that can be managed and sustained.”

Kolvin stressed that the transition to 24-hour cities was under way and could not be ignored. It was essential for venues, local authorities and police to “step up to the mark” to deal with issues presented by night venues. His Manifesto for the Night Time Economy offers a series of steps that city centre managers can take to create and preserve healthy and vibrant city centres.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan is on the verge of appointing a ‘Night Czar’ for London to work with boroughs, developers, operators, police and public to deal with the kinds of challenges thrown up by the Fabric issue.

Speaking after the licence revocation, Khan said: “The issues faced by Fabric point to a wider problem of how we protect London’s night-time economy, while ensuring it is safe and enjoyable for everyone… No single organisation or public body can solve these problems alone – we all need to work together to ensure London thrives as a 24-hour city.”

Former RICS president Louise Brooke-Smith of Brooke Smith Planning told the Sound Development conference that she felt much of existing policy around town centre management was confused and “old-fashioned”.

“We have such a conglomeration of policy around the country,” she said. “I think all the various strands can be pulled together in an intelligent way. If it’s presented in a  tangible and professional way to policymakers then policy will change.”

Fabric has pledged to appeal against the decision of Islington Borough Council’s licensing committee to revoke its licence.