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Photograph: Time Out/Jake Davis
Photograph: Time Out/Jake Davis

When will clubs reopen in London? Maybe never…

London's nightlife venues are more at risk than ever. Here’s what we need to do to save them

Written by
Kate Lloyd

A ‘pre-apocalypse party’ – that’s how Shay Malt describes the mood at the last Adonis. The queer techno and house night was held at The Cause in Tottenham on March 7, 13 days before the government ordered bars and pubs to close and ‘just as the shit was about to hit the fan’. The result? ‘Everybody was really going for it,’ says Malt, the party’s founder. ‘I think they all knew that it was going to be their final night out.’

In the weeks that followed, everything changed. Venues shut their doors. Malt says that he watched as DJs, staff and community members saw their work dry up. Then, on May 11, Boris Johnson’s road map to semi-normality listed clubs as some of the very last venues to reopen post-lockdown, and, even then, with strict social-distancing measures. ‘It was a house of cards-type falling in the first few weeks,’ says Malt. ‘I’m in a Whatsapp group with promoters and festival organisers and it was really bleak.’

Now, nearly three months after that party, venue owners and promoters are warning that London’s nightlife might not survive this year’s crisis. They say that London clubs are falling through the cracks in government support, and that opening them under social-distancing measures would be impossible. ‘There’s going to be a lot of casualties,’ says Malt. ‘And there are already only a handful of venues – especially queer venues – in London, so every one that closes is a real blow.’

This might sound surprising given that, from the outside, the support system in place for hospitality venues seems pretty robust. Staff can be furloughed. A new law means landlords are banned from evicting businesses that can’t meet their rent until June 21. And there’s a government grant of up to £25,000 available for those spaces with a rateable value – a business rate measurement calculated via rent and fees – below £51,000.

In reality, the nightlife community says it’s just not working for London’s clubs. 

Photograph: Time Out
Photograph: Time Out

Mark Oakley and Martyn Fitzgerald co-founders of the Eagle in Vauxhall say that last week they took part in a Zoom conference with every major LGBTQ+ nightlife venue and business in city – from GAY to little indies – where people looked uniformly ‘worried sick’ about their future in London. ‘We’ve lost nearly 60 percent of all LGBTQ+ venues in London since 2005,’ says Oakley. ‘We’ve seen [that] once you lose them, you lose them. There is a danger that the lot might go and we end up with a crummy little scene.’ The pair tell me that one of the main issues for venues is that, thanks to rents being so inflated in the capital, even small clubs often have a rateable value that’s way higher than £51,000. ‘The furlough scheme and rates holiday were two exceptionally positive moves,’ says Fitzgerald. ‘But when it came to grants, no one [I know] could claim them.’

Michael Kill from the NTIA says that it’s a problem they’ve seen play out across the city. A nightlife sector brief found that 50 percent of London’s pubs, grassroots music venues and LGBTQ+ venues cannot access grants because they have a rateable value over £51,000, and that that statistic is expected to be higher for nightclubs. ‘[Very few places] in London have a rateable value under £51,000,’ says Kill. ‘So most of the city’s venues have been excluded from grants. Venues here pay the highest rents, bills and service charge and they have the least support.’

It’s unsurprising, then, that rent is weighing heavily on venue owners’ minds. While the Coronavirus Bill protects them from being evicted by their landlords before June – even if they don’t meet their rent – the rule doesn’t stop landlords from charging them money. In fact, NTIA research found that 50 percent of landlords are still asking venues for rent. It means that many venues are accruing huge amounts of debt. Dan Beaumont, owner of Dalston Superstore, says: ‘We’re in uncharted territory here. The whole of London’s grassroots cultural landscape is under threat. All of us are accumulating costs that we won’t be able to meet. Landlords are having a hard time getting their heads around the fact that many venues are not in a position to pay rent when they can’t open.’ One venue owner Time Out spoke to explained that their landlord has been ignoring their letters for help and still sending them bills.

‘Right now landlords aren't able to kick out tenants,’ says Steve Ball, CEO of The Columbo Group which owns XOYO, Phonox and four other spaces in the capital. ‘But when that ends they will be hit with such high rental debts that they'll be untenable. The government will have wasted money on the furlough scheme because businesses will fail and when they do people will lose their jobs.’

Like Ball, many London venue owners describe the industry as on ‘life support’ at the moment, thanks to the Coronavirus Bill and the furlough scheme. A major worry is that government support will end the day they’re told they can open under social-distancing measures. Why? Social-distancing rules mean that club capacity will be significantly decreased. Not only will it be hard to implement – ‘There’s no way you could enforce two metre-distancing at Superstore, unless you put people in zorb balls’, says Beaumont – but it will significantly decrease revenue. The NTIA study found that if nightlife venues had to operate at 43 percent capacity for the first couple of months of being open, then 63 percent of them would not be financially viable.

Photograph: Time OutPhotograph: Time Out/Jake Davis
Photograph: Time Out/Jake Davis

The Eagle team have worked up a detailed plan for how the venue could open under guidelines, involving screens around the bar, clearly marked two-metre queuing stations, infrared thermo temperature checks on arrival, staff in single-use gloves and face coverings, and a ‘members only’ policy, meaning the team could significantly decrease capacity and do contact tracing. They say it’s doable, but only if they’re operating at a loss. ‘Unless financial support is tapered off so that businesses can gradually come back to life via social distancing, places will just go under,’ says Oakley. ‘Everyone’s worried that it will be taken away.’

‘Most hospitality businesses here operate with a margin of 10 percent or less,’ says Ball. If a business is going to achieve 50 percent of sales, they’re just losing money.’ He adds that this is a huge concern, especially given there very few places in London where you can even get a licence to have a nightclub: ‘We need to protect the nightclubs we have because there aren't any more coming down the track.’

Thankfully, four big projects have been set up to support London’s nightlife. The Mayor’s Office has called on the government to ‘step forward and provide the comprehensive support this industry needs to protect its future’, while offering up £675,000 to support the most at-risk grassroots and LGBTQ+ venues in the city. Then there’s #SaveOurVenues, calling for people to donate money to a crowdfunded resource available to grassroots venues. Meanwhile, two groups are campaigning for tweaks to current government strategy that could help save venues. There’s #raisethebar calling for the cap at which venues can get the £25,000 government grant to be raised from £51,000 to £150,000. This would mean it would include London venues such as the Eagle that are currently missing out. It’s supported by Night Czar Amy Lamé. You can sign their petition to show your support. There’s also the Hospitality Union’s campaign for a #NationalTimeOut, which we’re backing as part of our Love Local campaign. It’s asking for a nine-month national rent freeze for clubs, bars and restaurants to help them survive lockdown and opening at reduced capacity. It would mean businesses wouldn’t accrue debt, landlords would get a break on debt repayments and it wouldn’t cost the taxpayer anything. ‘It will save businesses and 100,000s of jobs,’ says Ball. You can help by writing to your MP in support, using this letter template.

Once you’ve done that? All you can do is support crowdfunders, take part in virtual events and hope that even tiny positives can come out of this. Malt wonders whether we’ll see new scenes and more warehouse parties starting to emerge. While Beaumont hopes that it will lead to more opportunities for grassroots talent. ‘When you think about the economic realities of what’s going to be in people’s pockets after this, I don’t know if big festival events with expensive headliners and pyrotechnics are going to be what people want,’ he says. ‘Maybe they’ll instead be investing in London’s grassroots electronic, performance and queer talent.’

Meanwhile, Kill from NTIA’s main hope is that the industry’s entrepreneurial spirit can help carry it through. He says that initiatives like loosening of licensing laws to create more of an outdoor café culture (something that’s happened in other cities around the world) are being considered by the GLA, and that he’s paying close attention to stories about initiatives like drive-in club nights.

One thing is for sure though. ‘People are really gagging to go out,’ laughs Malt. ‘What will be amazing is when we do actually start partying again, the atmosphere is going to be insane.’

There are tons more great initiatives helping London right now.

Time Out Love Local campaign logo

Time Out’s Love Local campaign is supporting local food, drink and culture businesses in London. Find out how you can help save the places that make our city great.

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