21 April 2023

Greggs and the sorry state of London’s nightlife


During the pandemic, I wrote several pieces for CapX about the importance of clubbing and the night economy, usually accompanied by appropriately enticing photos of people raving into the small hours. So it feels like a bleak signal of the state of the nation that the peg for this piece is a Greggs.

As reported in the Evening Standard, the bakery chain is preparing to mount a legal challenge against a decision to ban it from serving hot food round the clock in its flagship Leicester Square shop:

‘The Metropolitan Police, Environmental Health, three local Westminster councillors and one resident complained about the bakery’s plans in July last year. “It is our belief that if granted, the application could undermine the licensing objectives in relation to the prevention of crime and disorder,” the Met said.’

There is a lot to unpack here. Indeed, a whole piece could be written about the involvement of the Metropolitan Police, a force which signally fails to actually tackle crime and seems instead to have interpreted its role as suffocating the city’s nightlife.

It ought to go without saying that a free society is not one organised for the maximal convenience of the police. Their proper role is to protect people from the risks that attend us going about our lives, not to prevent us going about our lives in the name of safety.

But the broader problem, in central London, is the role of residents. For time and again, people who have chosen to buy or rent residential property in Zone 1 appear to believe they should have exactly the same right to peace and quiet as those in normal residential areas.

Such delusional selfishness would not be a problem if our system did not back them up. Local councillors, for whom revellers do not vote, have no incentive to balance their needs, or the broader needs of the capital and the country, against the demands of an active, agitated super-minority who hold all the power.

As with housing and so much else, the leading role of councillors means the governing spirit of our country is endless variations on the same toxic theme: ‘More of this – but not here!’

To some, the problem is the fact that so much of central London, including what should be prime entertainment districts such as Soho, are given over to residential property. Ant Breach of Centre for Cities suggests either prioritising commercial development for every floor in such areas or levelling them.

But this is a sub-optimal approach. It is not obvious that it would actually fill the buildings, given the shift towards home working. Moreover, such businesses would not actually have a stake in the night economy either – many Soho enterprises objected to pedestrianisation, a huge net boon to London, on the grounds that it made their deliveries harder.

(Presumably demolishing the areas outright and rebuilding properly soundproofed flats, which would destroy their character and see any economic activity relocate during the interim, was a joke.)

It also retains the tacit concession that people should be able to complain and impose themselves on their neighbourhood, which after decades of being the foundation of the planning system has given much of the British public a hypertrophied whinge reflex. 

No, there is a better solution. A model of local government which has not only ensured that one of the capital’s world-class assets has remained a world-class asset, but has also stepped in across London to ensure that precious common features have been held safely in trust for all Londoners.

I’m talking, of course, about the Mayor and Commonalty and Citizens of the City of London – or the City of London, for short.

The City, is seldom popular with the sort of people who take an interest in municipal government reform. It’s not very modern, after all. But its business franchise has helped it retain a strategic focus on the best interests of the City, upon which so much of the British economy depends.

It also safeguards common assets throughout the capital, with green spaces such as Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest, and landmarks such as Parliament Hill Lido, entrusted to its care and keeping.

What London’s nightlife really needs is an equivalent: a City of Soho Corporation, established by royal charter and with a business franchise, to govern and nurture the night and entertainment economy.

Soho, like the City, could be carved out of Westminster and governed in toto by this new body; perhaps certain other entertainment quarters likewise. But more importantly, businesses and premises in relevant industries would fall under its jurisdiction, and it would be the planning authority responsible for late licences.  

At a stroke, London’s precious and dwindling stock of bars and nightclubs would no longer depend upon the good graces of politicians for whom they are an inconvenience. Perhaps such venues could even operate schemes which would allow regular revellers to qualify for the Soho franchise, to ensure their views were properly represented.

Local councillors in the normal authorities could indulge their worst instincts to their hearts content, and benefit from being able to hide behind the fact that the Corporation held the actual power.

But what about the people who want to be able to live in the centre of a global city but pretend they don’t past 11 o’clock? Well – and this is the mental Rubicon policymakers really need to cross – they would have to get over it.

Not every competing interest is equally legitimate, not every complaint valid. People who move next to nightspots and then try and limit or shut them are being, at best, unthinkingly selfish. At worst, they are actively profiteering from the corrosion of city life, as value which was once enjoyed by business and their patrons is banked instead in the value of their property.

The Tories are often accused of responding to failures of local government with reflexive centralisation. But this is merely a different form of decentralisation, which eschews the common of treating geographical areas as little sovereignties subject to the whims of ‘local patriots’.

London’s night economy is going under. It’s time to establish the nightclub archipelago. And include the bakeries, I guess.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.