Britain’s night-time economy appears to be in a state of decline if recent headlines are anything to go by. Nearly half of the UK’s clubs have closed their doors in the past decade and pubs are closing at a rate of 29 a week.
But the night-time economy has always been a contentious area. On the one hand pubs, bars and clubs produce income and jobs for thousands of people. Meanwhile its downsides have always included crime and the fear of crime, overstretched ambulances and A&E, street cleaning around licensed premises, noise and light pollution and the potential for the sale of alcohol to underage people.
Efforts have long been made to manage this – increasingly so in recent years. City centres have street pastors and taxi marshals to watch out for people on busy drinking nights, and some cities such as Birmingham have even introduced measures to breathalyse people who appear drunk before they enter clubs.
The alcohol industry has also played its part with initiatives such as Best Bar None that promote responsible management and operation of businesses with an alcohol licences. Supported by the Home Office, its remit is to reduce crime and disorderly behaviour around alcohol premises. And retailers have pioneered initiatives such as community alcohol partnerships and Challenge 25 to reduce underage drinking.
More than neighbourhood complaints
So there’s probably more to the seeming decline of Britain’s nightclubs than anti-social behaviour and noise complaints – which is the reason given by Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. Some blame the competition from the introduction of longer licensing hours for pubs from 2005, but on the other hand the number of pubs has dwindled from 69,000 in 1980 to less than 50,000 today. Ironically they too may have suffered from noise complaints due to later opening hours.
Other reasons given for the decline in pubs and clubs have included: the smoking ban, student tuition fees, the increase in music festivals and pre-loading (drinking cheap supermarket alcohol before going out and therefore spending less in the clubs). Then there is the demand for pub properties, which are increasingly being converted for residential purposes.
But at the same time the beer industry is said to be enjoying a resurgence, currently employing 869,000 people, with the advent of numerous independent breweries such as London Fields Brewery and Camden Town Brewery. The minister for local government in charge of community pubs, Marcus Jones, says: “Britain is back on the map as a global brewing powerhouse with three breweries opening up every week.” The increase in, and popularity of, microbreweries has doubtless played its part in this success story.
So what do these apparently contradictory trends tell us about the consumer who used to go clubbing? Well there is doubtless truth in the different reasons put forward for the decline of clubs but perhaps one should also consider them as part of a historical trajectory in consumer culture. All leisure activities are subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune alongside environmental and legislative changes.
In the 1920s nightclubs such as the Embassy and KitKat Club were almost exclusively for the rich, aristocratic and famous. Since then clubs have been commodified along with all manner of other goods and services that were once the preserve of the wealth. And, along with them, they have become subject to the mass market and its vagaries.
This, alongside the impact of legislative changes, has played its part in the changing night-time economy. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s young people enjoyed free parties and a preference for ecstasy over alcohol but the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act effectively curtailed the free party scene and many young people had to move indoors to these commercially sanctioned clubs where alcohol consumption was promoted.
Young people in particular are affected by cost and fashion. So what are they doing if the trend in nightclubbing is waning? The growth of music festivals will have been important for those who go out at night primarily for the music. But a music festival is expensive and so some probably have to replace a couple of good festivals with weeks of clubbing.
Cash-strapped students may well be buying cheap alcohol from the supermarket and staying in for a Netflix binge or having house parties, while those working could be frequenting microbreweries or switching to healthier pastimes and training for their next triathlon. Nightclubs and pubs, like most products, have their lifecycle.
So what does the future look like for clubs? As Sheryl Garratt former editor of The Face notes, even the internet has had a role in their decline as people searching for like minded others can turn to social media and apps. But these will never replace the excitement of a night out drinking and dancing with friends. It may just be in a new, different form to the big venues of recent years.
Isabelle Szmigin receives funding from the European Foundation for Alcohol Research and Alcohol Research UK. She is a member of the Portman Group's independent complaints panel.
Authors: The Conversation