Where will the night tube go?

The decline of independent nighttime venues in London threatens to render this £17 million project useless.

Tom Peters
1 August 2016
Where will the night tube go? Geograph/George Rex. Some rights reserved.

Where will the night tube go? Geograph/George Rex. Some rights reserved.When London’s 24-hour tube finally opens this summer, there will be far fewer options for early morning revellers: a third of our smaller venues have closed since 2007. This engineering feat, built to extend the night, will open to a city which operates during daylight hours; a £17 million electric line to shuttle between points of darkness. 

Recently it was the turn of the Silver Bullet opposite Finsbury Park station. A late-night bar big enough to host established live acts, yet sufficiently intimate to be regarded as part of the community; posters for local campaigns are plastered along its walls next to the monthly listings. The Bullet’s staff were given three weeks’ notice of the sale of the lease to Goodman Restaurants (owners of the Burger & Lobster chain). They launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to purchase the venue themselves, with plans to run it as a not-for-profit, but ultimately were unable to retain the lease. The venue now lies dormant, a blank space where once a jostling night spot used to be.

How has this happened? A taskforce commissioned by the outbound mayor, Boris Johnson, pointed to two main causes of the decline of smaller night time venues in its report; market failure in the industry and ‘external forces.’ The latter included rising land values, expensive business rates, planning and development policies, licensing and policing, and the complaints of newly arrived neighbours. The then-mayor responded by making a number of promises, few (if any) of which he delivered on before leaving office. His replacement, Sadiq Khan, appears to be committed to taking up the mantle, with plans to introduce a ‘night mayor’ charged with fixing the ‘night economy’. It seems that in his adolescent adulation of new trains Boris didn’t think beyond the platform exits. 

In his essay ‘Trains in Space’, James Meek described the nineteenth-century “bare knuckle boxing trains…[which] would shoot off into the countryside” before stopping by a remote field for a few rounds of fisticuffs. It is hard not to see echoes of this time in Johnson’s turn at the helm of our capital; a “period of harrumphing and bloviation”, where fast money was made by red-faced, portly men, wielding grandiose infrastructure projects. It seems that in his adolescent adulation of new trains Boris didn’t think beyond the platform exits.   

But the problem is not contained to the mayor’s office. The recent spate of legacy follies are realised through responsibilities handed to mayors over the last decade, as part of a wider devolution project spreading powers across the UK. Though not without merit, the devolution project creates a splintered array of ‘external forces’ like those recognised by the taskforce report, fragmented institutions less able to realise a vision for the city as a whole. Perhaps Mr Khan’s upcoming review of the London plan will be able to marshal these forces towards a city with the lights on. Until then, no single authority can tell us where the night tube will go. 

This piece was updated by the author on August 2, 2016.

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