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Artillery Row

Saving London from the czar

London’s nightlife could be great — but it needs real change

Thank God for Amy Lamé. Amidst growing division and discord, Sadiq Khan’s night czar has done more to bring together young people of all ideological stripes than any figure in decades. Her recent appearance on BBC Politics London has been met with derision from across the political spectrum, and it’s not difficult to see why. 

Since the last Mayoral election, more than 1,100 bars and clubs in London have closed their doors permanently, including iconic venues like Printworks and Werkhaus. In terms of the raw number of transactions in the night-time economy, the capital has been overtaken by smaller cities like Liverpool and Birmingham. Talk to any young Londoner, and you’ll hear the same horror stories about expensive pints, early pub closures, and eye-watering taxi fares. 

Despite all of this, Lamé insists that the capital is a world-leading example of a 24-hour city. We are told that she is doing “all she can” to protect and support London’s nightlife, as bars across the city close their doors due to soaring rental costs, rising energy bills, and a suffocating planning and licensing regime. For a global city like London, the current state of affairs is nothing short of embarrassing. 

Perhaps all of this bluster is because she feels the need to justify her eye-watering £117,000 salary, which has risen by more than 40 per cent since she was appointed in 2016. That hefty sum certainly isn’t matched by a jam-packed calendar — in fact, the night czar works just two and a half days a week. Most of that time seems to be spent on opening murals, issuing statements, and drafting advisory “charters”, instead of working with local government officials and ministers to deliver substantive improvements to the capital’s ailing night-time economy. In the words of Night Time Industries Association chief executive Michael Kill, “we see a lot of announcements but not so many results”. 

Only the modern British state could manage to be at once comically bloated and totally ineffectual

Much ink has already been spilled about the absurdity of Lamé and her position, perhaps owing to the fact that she so perfectly encapsulates the dire state of governance in Britain today. For young Londoners, the dismal state of the capital’s nightlife is yet more proof that Britain is a miserable, expensive country, governed by the whims of curtain-twitching vested interests. Lamé’s 24-hour deception is the cherry on top, an unpleasant reminder of the fact that we have substituted government by action for government by announcement. There is a certain delicious irony in giving the title “czar” — literally derived from “Caesar”, and traditionally associated with the exercise of absolute power — to somebody occupying a purely advisory position. Only the modern British state could manage to be at once comically bloated and totally ineffectual.

It doesn’t have to be this way — if we can’t give young Britons lower rents and higher wages, we can at least give them cheaper pints and greater freedom to enjoy themselves in a capital city that ought to be genuinely vibrant. If Lamé were serious about saving London’s ailing nightlife, she would start by engaging honestly with the challenges that the sector faces, rather than erecting Potemkin Nightclubs in a bid to protect her future employment.

Though she holds no formal power to affect change, Lamé could serve as a powerful advocate for late night Londoners. That might start by campaigning to remove or reduce the suffocating taxes and duties which contribute to the rising price of a night out. Nearly 30 per cent of the price of an average pint is now attributable to VAT and beer duty; working with the Treasury to reform these charges would deliver welcome relief for London’s struggling pubs.

We shouldn’t ignore the role of licensing and planning in all of this either. It is all but impossible for venues to get permission from local government to stay open late, particularly if they intend to play music. Noise complaints from residents — or the fear thereof — ensure that most bars close well before their patrons are ready to turn in for the night. To this end, there’s plenty that ministers can achieve without needing to navigate the quagmire of Government. During Covid lockdowns, we saw the expansion of al fresco dining, requiring nothing more than the stroke of a departmental pen. A cooperative review of our licensing laws, with a view towards naming and shaming borough councils which cave to the whims of querulous residents, could help the party to roll on for just a little longer.

Closer to home, Lamé should encourage TfL to expand the Night Tube, which would not only allow revellers to stay for that extra drink, but make it easier for late-night bar staff to get home. For women in particular, Night Tube expansion would come as a welcome relief, at a time when braving London’s streets late at night is an increasingly unappealing prospect. 

Of course, she won’t do any of this. Lamé’s position amounts to little more than an expensive sinecure — her future employment is dependent not on delivery, but on her ability to suck up to the Mayor’s office. Much like an evening in London, the night czar is far too expensive, full of bad decisions, and bound to end in tears. I only hope that ministers will be brave enough to pick up the slack, and deliver better, cheaper night outs for Londoners. 

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