In Britain, planning stops when the sun goes down – and it's hurting our night-time venues

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Darrell Berry

Image: Darrell Berry

London has never been a 24 hour city. We’ve all experienced the difficulty of getting something to eat that’s even marginally healthy after 11pm.

There is a reason for this, and it is not cultural, but legislative. Our planning system is designed to guide uses from sunrise to sunset, not sunset to sunrise.

That’s because it is much simpler to govern daytime activities than those that happen after dark: most shops keep pretty regular trading hours. But pubs, nightclubs and other businesses that trade after dark are more variable, and more difficult to standardise.

As a result, Britain’s national planning laws are more suitable to what happens during the day. This leaves a much more variable, piecemeal system to manage the night time.

Our National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been deprioritised by our current government. But it nonetheless offers detailed guidance concerning standard building practices, retail trading hours, transport systems and so on: there is one system that informs all activities during the day.

At night, this system is replaced by an altogether different system that we call “licensing”, which differs from council to council. It is this system of licensing, and what it is doing to how we treat our night time economy, that needs to change.  

Britain is one of the most restrictive developed nations in its licensing policies. When councils develop such policies, they design them to be relevant to the local needs of the residents and businesses. However, they’re answerable to voters – and those who are mostly likely to vote are often not the people most likely to go to bars, pubs and nightclubs.

The result is a patchwork of restrictions that make little sense. Some nightclubs claim they have to satisfy over 70 licensing restrictions to operate: licensing covers everything from health and safety, to nuisance prevention, to the right to serve alcohol. But it does so without a framework of guidance.

One must regulate what can and cannot happen at night; but the regulations being proposed fundamentally ignore the fact that there is an economic ecosystem at night, just as there is during the day. Yet there’s no structured planning guidance to account for this for this. Planning is calculated, prescribed and didactic; licensing is individualistic and reactionary.

By way of example, consider the noise complaints made about commercial venues. Such complaints are common, and have resulted in a number of music venues and nightclubs being threatened with closure. Ministry of Sound spent nearly £1m fighting such issues; The Fleece in Bristol is embroiled in complaints right now.

Tackling such complains through licensing is clearly not working. In the Ministry of Sound case, a planning decision settled the challenge: the developer agreeed to a “Deed of Easement” notice, meaning those who buy the flats have to accept the club and its activities, as long as it does not breach its regulations. But it took a fortune and much fighting to reach that conclusion, and a licensing problem was solved only through common sense planning law. The Fleece’s situation still remains precarious.

Both situations are the result of a lack of night time planning structure in the UK. We use licensing conditions to solve issues that should have pre-arranged solutions in the NPPF.

There are other options. Some cities have night mayors (Amsterdam, Rotterdam). Others have night time entertainment commissions (San Francisco). But in London, we don’t have a planning framework to support our nightlife: policy assumes that most of us go home by 10pm, and those that don’t are considered a nuisance.

The night-time economy isn’t disappearing. It’s growing, and our cities are better for it. At some point, London will welcome the 24 hour tube. It’s time we noticed that and began planning to make it even better, for those who go out – and those who stay in.