The borough's late-night licence policy, set in 2018, appears to have added extra layers of bureaucracy to the process for businesses looking to capitalise on the area's late-night economy. Vincent Wood reports
Hackney Council's decision to evolve long-standing powers to limit late-night operators in Shoreditch and Dalston last year was a controversial one.
The two areas of the borough have been hubs for late-night food and beverage operators, drawing revellers from across the capital, while becoming shorthand for a certain type of chic, independent business. It also coincided with a push from the mayor of London's office to optimise the night-time economy in a bid to save the city's high streets. However, more than a year on, the policy does not appear to have caused monumental change to the number of applications.
The Special Policy Areas (SPAs) were refashioned to give the council the power to deny licences that may create a "cumulative impact" due to the number of operators in the area, potentially contributing to crime and disorder, impacting public safety, creating public nuisance or affecting the protection of children from harm. In particular, the scope of the initiative was seen as an attempt to curtail late operating hours for bars, clubs and restaurants, with the zones implicated covering the bulk of Shoreditch and Dalston's vibrant Kingsland Road.
The policy was passed unanimously by the council in 2018, but not without public opposition. In the days before the vote, locals under the banner of pressure group We Love Hackney crowded the square outside the borough's town hall, blasting music and warning that the policy would harm the diverse and thriving nightlife in the area.
"The new licensing policy is anti-independent business," said protest organiser Jonny Dillon at the time. "It's going to cull the diversity and the vibrancy of Hackney's night-life and night-time economy, and the policy makes it a really hostile environment for small independent businesses to open up in Hackney."
While the number of new premises licences applied for and granted in Shoreditch was relatively small in the first year of the policy's introduction, the difference from year to year has been a slim decline. An investigation by The Caterer
Dalston applicants appear to have been less inhibited - there were 10 applicants from 2017-2018, and 10 more applied from 2018-2019. The only change was in the number granted - 11 by the end of the period in 2018, and eight in 2019.
The number of licences applied for within the special policy areas made up some 26% of the overall borough since the policy was introduced - falling 2% on the previous year.
But some claim the process has become more difficult for operators, with licensing becoming an additional strain on new openings when it previously was not. Piers Warne, a lawyer specialising in alcohol licensing in hospitality for legal firm TLT, told The Caterer the difficulty with the SPAs comes from the likelihood that applications will be contested by the council - whether they act on behalf of residents directly or not: "In Hackney I've known restaurants have their licences refused when residents have been particularly vociferous.
"The language has been softened slightly in the policy, but in reality I have had to go to a hearing in Hackney for a property in Shoreditch purely on policy grounds, when no residents had objected. The police were happy and we had agreed terms with them, the environmental health officer was happy and we had agreed terms in advance, but the licensing officer felt it had to go before committee on policy grounds. It was granted, but it was an extra hurdle.
"The effect that has within cumulative impact policies, especially those that are robustly protected in places like Shoreditch, Westminster, Soho and the centre of Bristol, is that smaller independent operators will be put off the process and may not apply at all, because there is a significant chance the investment will not work. It's alright for the bigger operators to a degree, but the smaller ones there is that element of hope."
While the difference from year to year in the number of new licences applied for within both SPAs is a total of nine licences, Kate Nicholls of trade body UKHospitality told The Caterer that it was a sign of business being deterred. She said: "The number of applications for licences in Shoreditch has dropped significantly, whereas the percentage granted has stayed stable. If anything, this shows that the introduction of an SPA has acted as a disincentive to apply.
"Considering that hospitality businesses - pubs, bars and nightclubs - have been absolutely crucial to the revitalisation of this part of London in recent years, this combative approach to licensing is a huge disappointment."
However, Warne said the decline may come down to slowing investment in riskier regions. "The special policy areas are one factor, but I think there is a general sense of wariness about significant investment. Whether that is banks being a bit more careful to loan, or that individuals looking to apply or thinking about applying are just holding out in the short term, I couldn't be sure, but from what I'm seeing across the country, there does seem to be a slight easing off in those types of new applications where there is a high risk factor."
The cumulative impact of new licensees has regularly been cited in decisions in the area - by both councillors and residents. In July, Dudleys Bakehouse, a café operation on Kingsland Road, failed to extend its alcohol licence to 5am after complaints against the claim were lodged by locals. Meanwhile, a nail bar on Shoreditch's Rivington Street that used to serve customers Prosecco while they received treatments had its licence limited to 8pm after residents called on the body to enforce the SPA.
But the council has a balancing act to consider. On one hand, they have one of the city's most revered destinations for evenings out and a booming night-time economy. On the other, Hackney is under increasing pressure from its residents. In a 2018 survey, satisfaction with the council's handling of antisocial behaviour fell from 73% the previous year to 53%.
Cllr Caroline Selman, Hackney's cabinet member for community safety, policy and the voluntary sector, said in June: "We have always said that our aim is to balance the needs of our exciting, vibrant nightlife with the needs of residents, who are entitled to a good night's sleep. The policy was introduced after an extensive development process, during which we did a huge amount of listening, research and evidence gathering, and it is shaped by the views of visitors, licensees and local residents."
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