The War on Clubs

London's night life is dying. Can it be revived?

By Rachel Lavin

Kieran Canavan is a towering 6ft 4 tall hulk of a man who sits at the bar of the pool club he owns stroking one of his two cats, Bacardi.

(‘JD’, the other cat, is lounging in Kieran’s apartment upstairs.)

Despite looking every inch the staunch weathered publican after 30 years in the business of managing and owning bars and clubs, he softens a little, his eyes slightly watering when talking about the pool club he built up over the past 6 years.

“I try not to think about it, it is very hard for me to talk about,” he begins. “I opened Canavan’s, sold my pub and my flat and moved in upstairs, this was to be my retirement. “It was two years before the riots. After, there wasn’t a sinner on the streets of Peckham after 8 or 9 o’clock. I walked the streets for months, handing out flyers, trying to get people back into the area.

“It was two years before the riots. After, there wasn’t a sinner on the streets of Peckham after 8 or 9 o’clock. I walked the streets for months, handing out flyers, trying to get people back into the area.

'We were part of the reason the young people started coming back into Peckham. Now they’re here, they're saying thanks very much, now p**s off.'

“We booked local, national and international DJ’s, upgraded the sound system, got on social media and eventually they came. We are part of the reason the young people are coming into Peckham, we are part of the reason house and rent prices have gone up. Now they’re saying thanks very much, now p**s off somewhere else.”

Canavan’s Peckham Pool Club, one of the last few late night music venues in London, is facing closure by the local council.

The list of recent club closures in London is a long one. According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), half of London’s late night venues have closed in the last five years, with the number of night clubs inside the M25 dropping from 400 to 288. The below graph gives a snapshot of such closures amongst London’s major nightclubs, with recently closed clubs outlined in red. Such club closures are slowly killing London’s nighttime economy, valued at £66 million, and endangering it’s late night music and dance culture it was once famed for.

Duncan Dick, editor of dance bible Mixmag, went so far as to describe the rising level of club closures as potentially an ‘all-out war on clubs across London’. But what is driving this dramatic downturn? Here we explore the five factors influencing the decline in London’s night clubs and what can be done to resolve it…

  • Kieran Canavan pets his cat at the Canavan's bar. Photo: Rachel Lavin
#1: Drug Dilemma.

When one of the jewels in London’s nightlife crown, Fabric, closed in August it became a lightening rod for criticism and reflection on the rising levels of club closures and the decline London’s night life.

Islington Council justified the closure claiming it was in response to the drug-related deaths of two 18-year-olds on the premises. (This was compounded by the fact that four people had died in Fabric prior to the council’s last inspection in 2014).

Closing clubs as a response to drug abuse seems to be a growing reason for recent trends in club closures and no doubt the battle to reduce drug deaths in London is an urgent issue, but does it solve the problem?

According to UK statistics released last year, deaths caused by ecstasy or MDMA rose from eight in 2010 to 50 in 2014. There were 25.4 deaths per million due to drug misuse in London in 2014, and a 17% rise in drug deaths overall in England. This is a striking problem but is closing clubs the best way to stem drug deaths in the UK?

Katy McLeod of Chill Welfare, an organisation that aims to reduce drug deaths, is doubtful.

"Shutting night clubs is only likely to make drug use riskier"

“Shutting night clubs is only likely to make drug use riskier,” she says “Whilst of course any drug related death is a tragedy and one too many, overall clubs that have suffered recent closures such as Fabric and The Arches had a track record of promoting safety and harm reduction.

She argues that closing clubs to stop drug deaths only shifts the goalposts.

“We can’t blame nightclubs for this.”

“With less clubs around we will just see nightlife become more unsafe. This will simply displace the issue to other venues and unlicensed venues including. warehouse parties and outdoor parties. People are more likely to pre-load with drugs and alcohol before entering clubs and may be less likely to seek help in a club for fear of getting caught. They are also perfectly capable of using drugs in their own homes and the risk of overdose is far higher in this scenario.”

She says increasing drug deaths are due to the type of drugs being sold and problematic using patterns such as when people take too much, take more too quickly or mix them with other drugs or alcohol.

Tony Sophoclides of ALMR echoes her claims that placing the responsibility for reducing drug use on the shoulders of club operators is not just a misguided response to a growing problem, but also unfeasible for club owners.

“There is a disproportionate expectation on what can reasonably be done.”

“There is a disproportionate expectation on what can reasonably be done,” he argues.

Indeed, while keeping alcohol out of clubs is easier, with bag searches and more easy to spot signs of drunkenness, how can a bouncer stop a tiny pill from entering their premises?

In an attempt to measure up to expectations some late night venues, like Brixton 02 Academy, have resorted to using sniffer dogs to prevent drugs entering their venue while others have resorted to special scanning machines. For many revellers out for a good time, the prospect of being sniffed by intimidating dogs or lined up to go through a scanner is not appealing.

“There is a point at which it becomes commercially disproportionate for the measures that will come there with very little return in terms of effectiveness and will just stop people going to clubs if they have to walk past alsatians every time, for example,” says Tony.

At the same time some club operators go above and beyond to try to meet this demand, there seems to be a prevailing attitude amongst governing bodies that they are too soft . But Tony argues the attitude to drug prevention amongst London’s club operators he works with is anything but.

“I think you struggle to find in modern times anywhere where a club is not taking pretty good measures to try and enforce 0 tolerance policies on drugs,” he says. “Put it this way, if you’re a licensee you have a nightclub you know very well your entire livelihood is under threat were there to be an incident. So to think there’s any sort of environment in which night club owners are turning a blind eye in order to boost numbers on the door just doesn’t make sense economically.”

#2. Disco Disconnect.

This gap in understanding drug prevention strategies speaks of a wider disconnect between the councils responsible for closures and the club operators themselves.

Canavan’s experienced this first hand when, Kieran explains, their licensing was called into question after a member of the council visited the venue and discovered it was operating as a night club.

The council says the club did not have planning to operate as a late night music venue but Kieran says they had an alcohol license to remain open until 4am, and had been doing so for over ten years. They assumed, given regular inspections from the council that all was in order.

I think this is one of many symptoms of a disconnect between licensing authorities and councils and the culture of night clubs.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, the idea the local council could plausibly not be aware that such a popular club well-known as part of Peckham’s night life even existed speaks of something more significant. “I think this is one of many symptoms of a disconnect between licensing authorities and councils and the culture of night clubs,” says Tony. “I would say there are very few people on council’s, licensing committees or planning committees who have visited a nightclub in the last 20 years let alone have an understanding of the culture and operations of night clubs.”

Perhaps this is down to a certain stigma around clubbing that other cultural musical venues don’t have. Tony points to a recent case in Berlin which found that that a nightclub has the same cultural gains as an opera house and therefore should be treated the same in terms of tax breaks.

“Now that’s a really forward thinking way of looking at it and that’s the sort of thinking we need.

“But I think anyone who looks at cultural and social side and even economic sides would have to conclude that it brings so many benefits to so many aspects of UK life.”

  • Kieran Canvan Photo: Rachel Lavin
#3. Economically Obselete?.

If gentrification ups the cost of living in areas that clubs draw people, then perhaps what we can call ‘residentrification’ hits the nail in the coffin for popular clubs.

When clubs help create a cultural hub in different boroughs of the city and following gentrification patterns, that entices property developers and new living spaces to suit the new clientele.

However, new residents don’t just rise rents but can react unwelcomingly to the local clubs that first spawned the popularity of their new neighbourhood, something Tony refers to as ‘having your cake and eating it too.”

This also may be a factor in the case of Canavan’s pool club, as Kieran points out. He points to the building of luxury flats on Peckham High street both opposite his building and in future, behind it as a new source of noise complaints from new residents.

"‘Residentrification’ hits the nail in the coffin for popular clubs."

He also claims it may be a source of a vested interest for the council in deciding on the future of his club, in that there may be more profit to be made from apartment complexes as opposed to a small club.

The Council deny they want to see Canavan’s closed, saying “We will work with Canavan’s to keep this popular venue open,” adding “this will have to take into account the impact on local residents.”

In the meantime they have granted Canavan’s a six month reprieve to reapply for planning.

But the issue does raise important questions of the possibility that residential developments could be given preference over local clubs, especially when new residents begin to complain.

"It brings so many benefits to so many aspects of UK life.”
#4 Death of Disco?.

There is of course one other reason clubs are closing that no amount of regulation can mitigate.

It is the growing cultural trend amongst millennial that choose to stay in and socialise less, that Netflix order-in culture is overtaking going out.

“We no longer go out. And why would we, when the allure of staying in has reached irresistible proportions?” wrote Molly Young in the New York Times.

If so the death of London’s night clubs may not mean the government are to blame and if night clubs are on the way out from growing cultural attitudes it may be impossible to ‘fix’.

However, Tony is not so convinced.

“I think things like that are cyclical and we’ll find whether that’s true in time. I wouldn’t deny it as a recent trend but the extent of it is hard to tell.”

"We no longer go out. And why would we?"

He says the ‘shift’ away from night clubs may be more reflective of recent policy trends to allow more variety of venues for millennial bored of just clubbing, such as the Licensing act of 2003 which started to take effect in 2005-2006, which meant everything from late night restaurants to karaoke bars and bowling alleys diluted the market for late night entertainment.

“That’s not a shift of people en masse saying we’re not staying out past 11 o’clock, they might be staying in a different venue and dancing and socialising,” says Tony. “Whereas before feeling after 11 only place to go was a nightclub, now you can go other places.”

These trends can be as much influenced by digital innovation such as Netflix and Seamless as they can be by practical infrastructure such as extending the night tube services that allow people to stay in central London longer, and encourage them to go out.

“There’s something called the shoulder period- if you have a town centre and people are shopping during the day, if there’s an offer to stay after work that attracts people to stay in town centre, shops will stay open later, going for something to eat, pubs stay open later and consumer base that stays later and more likely to stay later for cubs.

“The future in that respect is really good.

“Times hard at the moment (but) one thing you could say with confidence, people will always want to dance and appreciate music after dark. It’s not all gloom and doom.”

“People will always want to dance and appreciate music after dark. ”
What can be done?.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged to revive London’s night life, recently appointing ‘Night Czar’ Amy Lame. But what can be done to save London’s clubs?

“It will probably be a very incremental shift because I can’t see that’s there’s going to be massive initiatives from central government. It wouldn’t be politically popular.”

However, Tony believes if economic arguments pave the way, an understanding of the cultural value will follow.

“If you can show economic benefits far outweigh any of the very few of the cultural ills, (which are already out-balanced by social benefits) then you’ll slowly win the argument.

“We are very much a nightclubbing centre, it is a global especially western cultural phenomenon and while Amsterdam and Berlin and Paris are making these more innovative and more enlightened policy decisions, eventually we will see their benefits and the arguments will grow for us to be able to put pressure on governments to follow suit.”

He cites things like the agents of change policy, equivalent cultural values for all late night music venues, extended night tube services, less punitive business rates and more practical drug prevention measures and most of all, more consistent approaches from planning and licensing bodies across all of London’s 33 boroughs.

However, progress in this regard, will be slow.

“I think it takes sometimes like high streets to close down en masse for attention to be paid, don’t think we’ll go that far with night clubs.. but have to keep trying to bang the drum and point out the benefits.”

“We are one of the last late night venues in London.”

How far wrong London’s night club scene will have to go before meaningful change can come about however is another question.

For Kieran, when asked about the future of Canavan’s he is still unsure.

He is re-applying for planning, raising 7000 signatures from his local patrons, re-soundproofing his club and trying to improve crowd control measures for those rejected from the club over drink and drug issues in order to quell noise on the street that will annoy neighbours (even though this is not particularly his responsibility.)

But while the council have pledged to work with him to save the club, even cutting back on his opening hours means Canavan’s appeal as a late night music venue would be rendered redundant and, he fears, would force him to close shop.

“I’m worried about the future of Canavan’s because I’m worried how they will cut back the hours because we are known as a late night venue, we are known as one of the last late night venues in London. If they cut our hours back, I would have to close. As much as I love the pool myself, I love the kids coming in here practising, it doesn’t make enough money to pay the rent.

“It’s frightening,” he concludes.

“If I lose Canavan’s I don’t just lose my business, I lose my home.”

An attendee monitors activities in the pool room as revellers dance in the room nextdoor in Canavan's Peckham Pool Club. Photo credit: Rachel Lavin