‘It’s Almost A Perfect Storm’: Night Czar Amy Lamé On The Fight To Save London’s Nightlife

Amy Lamé Night Czar London Interview

Back in November, ‘Duckie’ founder and author Amy Lamé was chosen as London’s first ever Night Czar.

Inspired by similar roles in Amsterdam and Berlin, the job was originally going to be called ‘The Night Mayor’, but was retitled for sounds-bad-out-loud reasons (or as she put it, ‘we’d already had a night-mayor in City Hall for the past eight years.’)

Prior to her appointment, she’d already fought the good fight protecting LGBT venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern from the threat of demolition. Now she’s in City Hall, her task is to bring together everyone involved in London’s after-dark nightlife, from publicans to the police, councillors to clubbers, to find ways to protect and improve London’s nocturnal side – not easy in a time where London’s cultural assets are under permanent threat from redevelopment and, as Amy calls it, ‘blandification.’ She’s also been holding ‘Night Surgeries’ all over London to speak to people about the challenges and opportunities facing the night time economy. Just ahead of the Mayor’s now-published ‘vision for London as a 24 hour city‘, In a great big interview here at Interchange, home of the Secret London offices, Amy spoke about what she’d learned from her first six months on the job.

On becoming the first Night Czar:

‘I started my own nightclub, and I’ve been on the frontline of the nighttime economy and culture for the last two decades. But being a ‘night czar’ – it’s not like you can study for that. You can’t go and get a degree in night czaring. Then again, even if you want to run a nightclub, there’s nowhere you can go and learn that either – you just have to go and do it, and find people that are interested and teach you things as you go along, and make a hell of a lot of mistakes, and  eventually you get better and better, and get pretty good at it.

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So i think a lot of the work that I’ve done hasn’t been formal training, but rather on my feet, on the ground, learning as I go along – and to me thats the spirit of London as well. I left America when I was 21 to come here, and live my ‘American dream’ on the other side of the pond, because London just feels like a place, certainly then but still now, of infinite possibilities.

The first thing I had to realise was the importance of building bridges between unlikely friends. At the start, some overly political things that I’d said were ‘highlighted’, so I think it’s important for me now to be able to talk to people who are on the other side of the political spectrum, and know thats how we’re gonna move things forward, really.

On being in the ‘public eye’ for the first time:

In terms of being a woman in the public eye, you only need to look on Twitter. It’s easy. I’ve had death threats and rape threats and all kinds of horrible things and it’s not exceptional – but it is completely and utterly unacceptable.

So I turn off my phone. Well, I turn off social media. I use it for what i have to use it for, but i try not to dwell on it. Because actually, my working environment at City Hall is so positive.

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I never expected it to be such a place of equality and opportunity. Sadiq as Mayor has signed up to never sit on an all-male panel, and he has asked all the deputy mayors and myself to sign up to the same promise. For women, we are given the opportunity to say, ‘well, I’ll only speak on gender-balanced panels’ and you know, this is a hugely powerful thing. Because this is a man in position of power who’s saying: ‘I’m setting the tone for this place, and we have to make sure through everything we do that we reflect the lives of Londoners. And that means gender parity, it means racial equality, it means having a percentage of BAME representation on boards and panels, and so in everything we do we are thinking about that.

Some people might say ‘oh its just ticking boxes’  – well, people are not boxes to be ticked. This is reflecting the real life of Londoners. We have an obligation to do that, and I actually really love doing that, because it means we’re real and rooted in London and wanting to make that a reality.

On the joys of Croydon:

“[Doing these night surgeries], its been a bit of an eye opener! Having run my club in Vauxhall for over 20 years, I often think: ‘Oh, I’ve seen it all… and loads of things i can’t unsee even though I’d like to.’ But running these night surgeries has been really incredible, because you get to go to places all over London that you’d not necessarily expect to have a vibrant night-time culture. Walthamstow, for example –I had the most incredible night out! If i told you I’d gone to this place in an industrial estate on the edge of a city, and there was a lady brewing her own gin from berries she harvested in the forest nearby, a big museum full of neon lights and people doing disco yoga plus a craft beer bar and a giant disco ball that was actually a pizza oven,  you’d be like ‘Oh my god, you were in Berlin, that sounds amazing!’ But it’s here! In Walthamstow!

Croydon is another place – everybody laughs at Croydon, but I went down there and the stuff they’re doing is so progressive and really wonderful and so supportive of the night-time economy. For too long we’ve had this idea that the nighttime economy and culture is centred around particular areas. But now you’ve got the Night Tube, and London is growing so fast – just last night the Mayor delivered his vision for a city of 10 million people. We’re growing, we’re booming, and that means that nighttime economy and culture can flourish in all different corners of our city.

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And my eyes have been opened. Through the night surgeries I haven’t just been visiting bars and pubs and clubs, although everyone thinks that’s what my job’s really about! I was at Homerton A&E at 1am on a Friday, at Shoreditch Fire Station station talking with the men and women that keep us safe, as well as homeless shelters, and going out with local councillors, and just standing at a bus stop for 20 minutes and talking to whoever. Yes, I am that crazy lady at the bus stop being like ‘SO! What do YOU think about the Night Time Economy And Culture?!!’ But you have to be out and about, because otherwise why am i doing this job? Anyway, I am not the kind of person to just sit behind a desk.

On saving the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (one of London’s foremost LGBT venues) and other small venues:

Well, the RVT, it’s a spit ‘n’ sawdust, red velvet curtains kind of place. You look at it from the outside and it looks like quite big, but then you go in and you’re like ‘How did they cram all these people in here?’ It’s one of those special places in London. It was built in 1863 alongside a church up the road – churches and pubs always go together! – and built with the bricks left over from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which had been on that site since 1861.

So when people say ‘why is it so special?’, it’s because there’s some kind of weird London leyline there. People have been making mayhem, and performing, and having all sorts of fun on that very ground for centuries and centuries. And we really feel we’re trying to keep that alive. But it was bought by property developers in Austria who just wanted to knock it down and build hotel – which I’m sure was what Vaushall really needed, another Premier Inn.  So we cottoned onto this and we’d been working really hard for the past few years and were hoping to buy it as a community.

I hope that people look at the campaign that we ran from whatever community you might be a part of. The LGBT community isn’t really geographical – there’s loads of us everywhere that just kind of pile into the RVT – but whether it’s your local pub or near to where you live, or whether it’s to do with your identity or ethnicity or religion, if it’s a place you feel passionate about and that venue or that space is under risk, then I’d really urge you to contact us at City Hall, because we have resources we can share with you about saving your community spaces. Because these spaces are really really important to the fabric of London.

I call the threat ‘blandification’ – we really don’t want every place to look the same. It’s important that we’re vigilant and it’s incredible that we have a Mayor who is saying that yes, these community spaces are important. The night time economy and culture is hugely important to London: it’s worth £28 billion to the city, and when i tell people these figures, they’re always like ‘Really? So, we ignore this at our peril. And I’m not saying its about greed, but it is about capitalising that we do best in this country. We do diversity better than anyone else in the world, we do music better than everyone else in the world. And we have the opportunity here to create a truly 24-hour city, which we don’t really have right now, apart from in some places. But we can develop this in a really balanced way, so people who want to carry on raving until 5am can do that ,and people who want to get a good nights sleep can do that too. It’s about the balance.

On the threats against small venues:

But what the RVT really did was highlight the threats that not just LGBT venues, but other small venues are facing: live music venues, pubs, some of the places that are so important here in Camden. And those are threats like development, the rules around planning and licensing, the rise of rents,  the rise of business rates – it’s almost like we’ve got this perfect storm, which is creating a very challenging situation for small business owners who want to keep this nighttime culture alive.

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And it all comes down to money. Because yes, you can make more money knocking somewhere down and building flats, or whatever it might be, and selling those off and walking away, than just running a good community venue. And you know the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a profitable business! These places aren’t closing because they’re not full of people. They’re making a profit! But it’s really down to a sort of dystopic view of what is good for a society. And that’s why I think having a night czar is so important, to try and keep that in balance, and having someone to watch over this. We nearly lost Fabric, you know, but left, right, and centre, over the past eight months since I’ve started this job, we’ve been trying to save loads of venues, and we’ve had a number of successes. But it takesa lot of hard work, it really does. 

On negotiations:

‘It’s not easy. You have to be very patient, but also  very focused. It can be a real challenge, especially if you have people who are quite entrenched in their ideas about what the night time economy is. They might see it as all about losing the ability to know where at toilet is after midnight. Well, actually, thats not the full picture. It’s about going back to that ‘balance’ thing and saying: ‘we recognise there may be issues, but how can we work together?’ It’s also about knocking down those very stoic ideas, as if it’s always ‘the punters versus the police’ or ‘venues versus the council’ when that’s not the full story either.

Frankly, the powers we have at City Hall are not great. We don’t have powers over licensing. We have some powers over planning, but not a huge amount. So I’d say that the best thing we can do is to focus on our convening power, our ability to get people around the table. Get those unlikely friends to actually talk to each other. Some people call it soft power, but it really is quite powerful. Because then change comes from people and relationships rather than decisions being made from on high, and so it feels like much more grassroots.

On being a night owl:

“Well, I’ve never been – I hate when people say ‘normal working hours’, you know. My dad’s a plumber, he started his own plumbing business, and if someone had a leaking toilet he had to get up and fix it! My idea of what work is isn’t necessarily going to an office and sitting behind a computer and then going home.

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I think it’s really helpful to think of a 24-hours clock and divide it into three. So it’s like a Mars bar: work, rest and play. And if you can divide your 24 hours into those parts, you’ll have a balanced life. Whenever and wherever you’re working or playing is really up to you, and we should have the freedom to do that! Because some people really don’t want to work at night, and I understand that, personally but I’ve always been the first person to stick my hand up and say ‘I’ll do the night shift! I’ll do the overnights!’

On the fun bits:

‘Launching the Piccadilly Line night tube and getting on at Heathrow for the first eastbound service, and getting to sit in the cab and make the announcements! That is undoubtedly the highlight. I was like ‘OMG, I’m playing on the biggest train set in the world!’ Just being able to take the little radio and go ‘this is your night czar speaking and soon we’ll be arriving a Leicester Square station. Have a safe journey!’

And the rest of the night tube:

“I love the night tube! People are so joyous on it. And smug, like ‘I’m going home with just my Oyster card!’ I think it’s really its transformed the way London operates, certainly at the weekends, and now we’ve got the Overground thats going to be connecting that huge swathe around Dalston and East London.

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Just anecdotally, we know that businesses are really booming as a result. We also know that in the first three months there were 1.5 million journeys – we were just flabbergasted, because it’s a lot more than we forecast! And there were only 67 arrests in the first three months. Before, people thought ‘oh my gosh, the night tube is going to be really dangerous’, but in fact it’s been really safe.

On meeting Night Czars from other cities:

“They’re great. I’ve met Mirik Milan, who is the night time mayor of Amsterdam, and Lutz Leichsenring, who is night mayor of Berlin, and they’re both very different characters, and they have very different approaches to the work that they do. They also don’t work directly with their Mayors, so here in London it’s a unique setup. There are differences! In Amsterdam they have 900,000 residents in their city, and you can cycle from one side to the other in 20 minutes, but they have 14 million visitors every year. Whereas we’ve got 8 million people and we get 16 million visitors every year.

So in Amsterdam, people go there for the nightlife and the impact on their city is huge. So what they’ve done is created this ‘donut’ around the city, which is a 24 -hours zone where you can go clubbing anytime, day or night. But if we tried to do that… can you imagine a clubbing zone around the M25?

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And in Berlin, a lot of people who were previously involved in the club scene there, now they’re a bit older, have got together to build this big site along the river, [called Holzmarket.] They pooled their money and bought this big site and turned it into a centre of creativity for music, for clubbing, and for small indie businesses. I was in Berlin a couple of months ago they were just putting the final touches on it and it just looked incredible, and it’s nice to see that all the old ravers have thought ‘Yeah! We wanna keep the spirit alive!’

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It’s interesting, next year is gonna be thirty years since the ‘second Summer of Love’, so there are a lot of people who were involved in the club scene back then who want to say ‘Here’s where we are now, this is what we’ve done since.’

But we can take inspiration from work other night mayors and czars have done throughout the world.  They’re important allies, definitely, and they’ve taught me a lot – and we’ve had some good nights out too!

On the threat of Brexit:

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“I was just meeting with a large pub company today, and they estimate that for their business to continue, and for pubs in London to keep thriving, they need 60,000 workers from the EU. We have a massive skill gap in Britain, and this perhaps is illustrated in the way the country voted. If you look at the map, London is very firmly Remain, because we realise the benefits of having a diverse culture. We’ve always been diverse, we’ve always welcomed our brothers and sisters from anywhere in the world. And that is why London thrives. It’s with sadness in our hearts, I think, that Brexit is happening. And I wish that I had the answer. But i think were actually sitting on a potential crisis in terms of the night time economy, and the people that work in it.’

On redevelopers responsibility to accommodate nightlife:

There’s this thing called Agents of Change – it’s a planning regulation that will be in the London Plan, and it’s actually the government that agreed with it and put it in their housing White Paper. So,  if anybody’s familiar with the case of the Ministry of Sound: its been there for 20-odd years, then someone decides to build a big tower block next to it. So the guys from MoS are thinking, OK, either we spend £1m on legal fees now and try and fight this, or in 18 months all these people will move in, start complaining about the noise and we could lose our business. So they took them to court, and were successful.

So now that building has been built under Agent of Change principles: the developers are the ones that changed the makeup of that neighbourhood, so they were responsible for soundproofing, and making sure the design was right, so people’s bedrooms weren’t backing out over the MoS entrance. You know – quite sensible things! This really isn’t that difficult, you know –  it takes a bit of thought and a bit of design. There’s a cost involved to it, but if you work it into those plans before you even start, it’s so much cheaper. It’s actually retro-fitting thats difficult… it is difficult if you live in a Victorian building dealing with noise issues.

On how to save a local venue:

There is a special venue status that anyone can apply for. All you need is yourself, and nineteen other people, to sign up – and its called an Asset of Community Value. It means that if the pub or whatever goes up for sale, that the community is given a chance to bid on it. And you have a six month mandatory period, where the community is given the time to rally around a particular venue. Now, there aren’t very many cases of communities buying venues under ACV status, but what it does do is make developers think again, because they think ‘This is a place that really matters to the community, and if we want to go in and and just turn it into flats , we might have a fight on our hands!’

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So it sends a signal that this is an important space, so that’s the first thing to do: all you need is people who are registered to vote in your constituency  to sign up.

And actually if you do have a local pub that you love, CAMRA’s website has loads of really great information on how to save your local pub, and it’ll take you straight to the forms you need.

And what City Hall are doing to help artistic communities:

One of the things we’ve set up is a champions network, working with every local authority in London. We have two people from every borough – that’s a councillor and a public servant that is a night time economy champion for that area  – that we can work with, so we’re trying to do some information sharing. And one of the things that the Mayor did was appoint a Culture-at-Risk officer, and his job is soley to look at at any culture we’re at risk at losing.

And so rather than fighting a ‘battle with developers’, we’re trying to work with developers to ask: ‘What you doing to make provisions for artists? How are you building artists and the creative community into your plans to regenerate such-and-such a place?’ We’re trying to get into those conversations at the very start, rather than waiting until its too late.

And you know, its been a different situation in London in the past decade, because we didn’t have a Mayor who took this that seriously. We had someone who would say it’s alright if people didn’t comply with their section 106 obligations, which are obligations to the community for providing affordable places for being to live or work. We now we do have a Mayor that takes it seriously… but it’s gonna take a little while.’

Support a small venue near you with this tube map of London’s music venues.

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