A Night with the Night Czar

Observations on the night time economy

Kingston is a diverse place. As Leader of the Council, I get to see the whole range of issues that a London Borough deals with; education, adult care, pavements, parks, roads, development etc. It sometimes feels like being Chairman of about twenty different companies at the same time. One of the more unusual aspects of Kingston, insofar as not many London Boroughs have it, is the town centre nightlife, something that has changed dramatically since I was growing up here.

Back in the 80's the town centre had pubs, a cinema and the clubs were confined to small venues who sold late night drinks (usually closing at 12 am). Go Back 100 years and there were fourteen or so pubs just in the Market Place/Apple Market/High Street area - now there are four.

The general decline of the pub has also seen the rise of the club and mega club and with it a very different attitude to alcohol amongst the young. Long, slow pub drinking has given way to fast alcohol intake and the liberalisation of drinking laws that were supposed to spawn “Mediterranean style” (which I think means longer opening hours would return to slower drinking) bars has in fact just lengthened the hours that night clubs need to remain open to make money and created far higher alcohol intakes. Somewhere along the line we also lost the 1960s culture where lower alcohol drinks were the norm (a pint of Mild and a Babycham) to one where high alcohol spirits are the drink of choice. This has not been a sudden Kingston issue but a gradual change seen across the UK.

The other big change around young people in Kingston has been the growth of the Polytechnic from 2,000 or so students to a University which at its peak reached well over 20,000 and added a different dimension to the town both during the day and at night. Nothing wrong with that - merely an observation on the changing nature of Kingston.

So what did we learn on our night walk?

Young people have always got drunk and have always made a noise when they are drunk. One of the differences of age is that in the main when you get older and get drunk, you tend to just fall asleep. Drunk and noisy is not unreasonable behaviour but there is clearly an issue for us all when that drunkenness spills over into Anti-social behaviour, although again, we must not overblow this because there have always been bad people looking for a fight. From Victorian pub brawls to mods and rockers on Brighton beach these are matters that are not new.

This is entirely a personal view but I did not find the clubs attractive. Some were no more than raves in a warehouse. It has never been my idea of fun to get drunk and dance to incredibly loud music. But I am a middle aged man and each to their own. What was apparent was the young people we saw were enjoying their evenings in what appeared to be a safe environment although the internal condition of the clubs (drab decor, tired furnishings and sticky carpets) were less than perfect. The clubs have the provision of scannet (security logging system), scanners and searching plus a quite high degree of responsibility towards their clients (areas to sober up etc). We did not evidence it, but they told us they breathalise those who appear drunk in the queue into the clubs. It showed that if nothing else the work the Local Authority, Police and club management have done has given us a much better run set of clubs than were there a few years ago.

That said, when you have thousands of young people enjoying their night out the most vulnerable aspect for all of us, whether club users or not, has to be the dispersal at the end of the evening. Any town centre turning out thousands of drunk people into the streets is creating a cocktail of concerns. To be fair, the night we were there the process went fairly smoothly with only one minor issue that we observed. However, this was a cold winters night and I can easily see that people hanging around on street corners can be annoying to those that live in the town centre - especially as drunks always seem to shout. The clubs were hardly full and it is clear ( if this night was typical) that there is quite an overcapacity of provision in the town centre, although I caveat this as we were visiting on a Winter's evening and of course there is a choice of music available. There are some other issues around this, especially around competition, but when two of the three large clubs in the town are owned by the same company the competition issue is somewhat nebulous. As I drove home at 4 am I did notice quite a large number who were not using transport to get home but walking through the streets of the surrounding residential areas to get to their homes in the near neighbourhood. This is the trigger point for the vast majority of the resident complaints we hear about. Noisy clubbers moving through streets at 4am can be a pain. It has always been thus, but I guess the concern is that in my time it would have been 1am - equally annoying but somehow less uncivilised. 

What inevitably concerned me most was the degree of drunkenness. Most of us have been drunk and I am sure there are legends built around the odd time that we were really drunk. What was surprising was the number who at 3am were not just drunk but staggeringly (literally) drunk. It geuinely appeared as this was n ot just the sign for them of a good night out but almost the purpose of the night out? This has to be a concern for us all, in the same way we have concerns about the public health aspects of the middle-age alcohol phenomenon. I abhor the Nanny state, but there are times when society has to take a view on an issue and decide what is acceptable, maybe that time is coming. When did we get to the stage that a good night out can only be had by being blind drunk? But there is another issue to drive home here and that is a concern that we all know this is a problem but instead of tackling it we all find ways for the young to be given permission to get habitually plastered. We have ‘tea and toast rooms’ in some clubs to sober people up, we have alcohol recovery centres on key weekends of the year (where we have beds and medics on hand to let them lie down and sober up) to divert the really drunk away from A&E and we have the blessed Street Pastors who do the most amazing job. This is all excellent provision but the fact we need to have this in place is a worry. Despite the wonderful work the Street Pastors do we surely all want the day when their work is no longer required? This is not something that Kingston can tackle alone.

A concern when people are drunk is the issue of safety, especially in the areas surrounding clubs. Much of this relates to Pryzm and its proximity to the Wheatfield Way, but equally there are issues as Viper Rooms spill onto the River Bank and Hippodrome clients stagger to the Portsmouth Road and walk home. Whilst at 3am (when they close) and 12am (as they start to fill up) are not busy times for the road network there are still issues around alcohol and moving vehicles that we need to think carefully about.

On a related note. Although there was an arrest made for drugs (actually picked up by our superb CCTV operators) I did not notice any use of drugs or dealing, but then why would I? not really something I was looking for.

What are the aspects of the night life we need to think about?

The town centre is changing. We have very few town centre residents at the moment but this is to grow very considerably over the next few years. As it does we need to consider how we manage our nightlife for the future. What is the right balance in the town?

What struck me about Kingston at night was that currently, once the theatre and cinema close, the nightlife in Kingston is the clubs - it is the only night time economy and this gives the impression (wrongly) of the town centre not being safe or being over run by drunk and potentially violent young people. In part this is because we have no twilight life in Kingston, there is no transition from business, to after work socialising, to after dark. The shops close, the streets empty, the residents scuttle to their homes as the town centre is handed over to the Police and Security in high-vis jackets. You also realise that our nightlife is somewhat spartan, in so far as it is concentrated on activity around the station, the river and the bottom half of Eden Street, leading to the Theatre. Is that where our night life should be or should we be planning the geography better (as far as we can)? Is this twilight issue because so few of the people who work in the town live in the Borough and are therefore travelling great distances to get home? Finally on this issue, what is the balance of nightlife we need between live music, theatre and clubs and bars? Is there ever a right balance and should we even be trying to make that change? We have licensing by which we can achieve this and we have various powers around alcohol consumption and capacity but are they really enough to shape a night time economy?

Since 2014 the Police and Council has closed two clubs for licensing issues - violence, underage drinking leading to crime etc. We know that within two years the three major clubs may be reduced to one as leases end and landowners look to more profitable uses for their ownership - developing housing or offices. So how, if we want it, do we maintain the current capacity of nightclubs or do we feel that in reducing the number of nightclub places we could increase something else? We accommodate theatre (in the theatre), classical music (in All Saints church and the Lovekyn Chapel to name a few) but we have very few live music venues (Fighting Cocks and Ram Jam), art house cinemas or even large meeting spaces (although we know this might happen in the Regal development). I can't help thinking that like we are seeing the growth of small cinemas and away from the 1990s multiplexes, we might start to see a movement away from the mega-clubs (over 2,000 capacity) to smaller more diverse clubs. Maybe I am wrong but I can see it might be a better fit for Kingston and it could be something we should be encouraging although I can see difficulties around the dispersed nature of policing such an arrangement etc.

Then there is the issue of residents. On the night I was in Kingston I did not feel threatened by the night life and also did not feel it was any noisier or rowdier than one would have expected at turning out hour in the 39 odd town centre pubs there were in 1911 . The difference is that 100 years later we have moved to a position where off-licence drinking has become how the majority of people consume alcohol and therefore drunks on the street seem confined to young people in clubs. We know that more residents will be moving to the town centre and so there needs to be a discussion about how we accommodate a growth in residents along with a growth in the night time economy and do we think this balance will be found naturally? But also, the town centre is the Borough’s asset and should the residents of the town centre have a powerful role in determining the future of the wider Borough's town centre? A bit like those who move under the flight path of an airport and then complain about the aircraft noise, should not residents moving into a town centre be expecting somewhat livelier activity outside their front door than you would get in Berrylands or Old Malden.

The Night Czar and the Mayor are talking about introducing an "Agent of Change" principle which requires developers to build to the highest level of sound insulation possible. That could be a solution to whatever new developments are created, but it will require the will of the Mayor to enshrine that in planning policy and by the time that happens much of the club life of Kingston will have gone. Not that this means it is a bad idea, just that it needs to find its way into the planning process quickly (or maybe even the building control process) and as we are all now discovering sometimes piling extra costs into construction usually means we get less of other benefits from development such as affordable homes.

Finally, we spend an awful lot of money and time both supporting the night time economy and cleaning up after it. In times of increasing austerity for the Council and Council Taxpayer we need to think carefully about the extra Police we pay to monitor and act when there are problems, but also think about the cost of street cleansing as we recover the streets so they are fit for opening the next morning.

Finally, we were delighted to have Amy Lame join us and experience what we have to offer first hand. She was very clear that her remit extends way beyond clubs, even though that is what her early reputation in the role has been built on. She too wants to see a diverse night time economy so it will be interesting to see how her work develops as we together tackle some of the conundrums about the shape of the future.

Did spending the night out give me all the answers? Undoubtedly not. Did it show me anything that I did not already know? Maybe. We are currently writing an economic development plan for the Borough as attracting new businesses has to be the core business of what we do and this night walk will help us think through the role of the the night time economy in the Borough.

As it happens, the Kingston Town Neighbourhood are debating the Night Time Economy as part of the Neighbourhood Conversations on Thursday 23 February at 7.30 till 9pm. They are asking you to book a place which you can do for free here