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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Marsh Consumer affairs correspondent

Critics call time on 24-hour city claims by London mayor’s office

A couple in a pedicab on a wet city street at night
Old Compton Street in Soho, London. Questions have been raised about the state of the infrastructure supporting the capitals nightlife. Photograph: Roger Garfield/Alamy

Anyone who has ever wandered through London after midnight, looking for a place to go once last orders have been called, might find themselves agreeing with recent critics of the mayor’s office for describing the UK capital as a 24-hour city.

Michael Kill, head of the Night Time Industries Association, said he was astounded when he heard the mayor’s “night czar”, Amy Lamé, speaking on BBC Politics London, where she made the remarks.

In a tweet sharing the clip in early March, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, said: “London is leading the world in its 24-hour policy with other global cities looking to us for inspiration.”

Kill said he could not understand the basis for the comments, adding that there was a “real disparity with the narrative presented and the PR position … and the reality what is going on within the city”.

He added that London had lost a huge amount of nightlife, with 1,100 bars and clubs shutting in just three years. The capital lost 46 pubs in the first six months of 2023, according to data from real estate analysts Altus Group.

People took to social media to express their frustration under #LameLondon on X. Images showed empty streets at night, half-full bars, and signage saying “no drinks outside after 9.30 pm”.

It comes in stark contrast to Spain, where a debate over the country’s vibrant nightlife – and the long working hours needed to sustain it – was thrust into the spotlight this week when leftwing labour minister, Yolanda Díaz, said their late-night restaurant culture was out of step with the rest of Europe.

“A country that has its restaurants open at 1 o’clock in the morning is not reasonable,” she said. “It is madness to continue extending opening hours until who knows what time.”

In 2005, the UK had more than 3,000 nightclubs, but by June 2023 there were only 851 remaining. Research from CGA, a market research consultancy, showed that between March 2020 and June 2023, the number of UK nightclubs fell by 30%.

Kill said the market had changed but the desire to go out was still there. “After 11 or past midnight, it is hard to get a drink and that is linked to the challenges around infrastructure which is not committed to a 24-hour economy.

“Let me give you an example: if you cannot get home after midnight or cannot get a cab, or there are not enough places open and people around to socialise … You need the right infrastructure in place for the market to go later and longer and at the moment there is not that commitment.”

He added that London had never been a 24-hour economy. “When 24-hour licensing came out people were hyped about that but the number of premises granted a licence is limited. There are restrictions on who can operate 24 hours.”

Last May a heated debate grew over Greggs’ right to trade into the early hours in central London, amid warnings it could cause a wave of crime and disorder. The resolution was that Greggs was allowed to open its Leicester Square flagship store until 2am from Thursday to Saturday and until midnight through the rest of the week, after Westminster council allowed it to sell hot drinks, such as tea and coffee, as well as some food items after an 11pm curfew.

Greggs said it had cancelled a three-day appeal hearing after reaching the agreement – although it falls short of its hopes of 24-hour trading. The store was also not allowed to sell food heated above ambient temperature, including potato wedges and chicken goujons, past 11pm.

Data from the Home Office shows that the number of pubs, bars, and nightclubs with a 24-hour licence between 2012 and 2022 increased from 81 to 183.

Figures from UKHospitality and CGA show that London’s hospitality industry revenue grew to £46bn last year, up from £43bn in 2019, and sales outpaced the rest of the UK, growing on average 7.7% a month, compared to 5.6% nationally.

But Kill says “businesses are struggling” and that the numbers do not account for “inflation”. He added: “It sounds like London is doing well but businesses are not saying that is the case. They are saying the cost of operating is one of their biggest challenges. They are filling venues and still not covering costs.”

A spokesperson for the mayor of London, said: “The night-time industries across the country have faced huge challenges in recent years, due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, rising rents and business rates, staffing shortages due to Brexit, and the government’s cost of living and cost of doing business crisis.

“The mayor and night czar continue to work closely with businesses, venues, boroughs and Londoners to support them throughout these challenges and last year London’s hospitality industry sales outpaced the rest of the UK. They know challenges remain and will continue to do all they can to protect and support venues across the capital and help new ones to open.”

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