The closure of the club arm of The Arches, a 2,400-capacity venue under Glasgow's Central railway station—and its subsequent administration, announced today—has alarmed nightclub owners like never before. Originally opened as a theatre by Andy Arnold in 1991, The Arches has grown into one of Europe's most dynamic arts centres. As a gig venue, a stage for some of the country's most admired theatre programming and a vast club space that welcomes marquee artists like Jeff Mills, Green Velvet and Carl Cox, The Arches represents a remarkable spectrum of local and international talent.
"The Arches runs club nights, but it's connected to a space that puts on a lot of art and a lot of performance and has regular live music shows, and all of the people who organise that are all in the same space," said Alan Miller, a former resident and promoter at the venue's Death Disco night. "So all the ideas for how those things happen are cross-connecting with one another in ways that don't happen in venues that just do one thing. If a nightclub is a nightclub, they don't get to see what theatre people do."
Today, the venue announced it was being placed into administration following the club's closure by the city council last month, after police successfully lobbied for the removal of its late license. The decision, which at the time meant the venue was forced to shut at midnight through the week, was met with outrage from the clubbing community. JD Twitch of Optimo called it "cultural vandalism." Dave Clarke, who runs the venue's flagship techno night, Pressure, described the decision as "a tragic blight on our city's cultural landscape." The Arches has also gained support from figures outside of the electronic music world, such as Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and poet Liz Lochhead. Creative Scotland and Glasgow City Council have since fronted pre-allocated funding to keep the venue going, but this remains The Arches' darkest hour.
Callum Smith is a theatre producer who launched a petition to rescue the venue (more than 39,000 people had signed it at the time of writing). He's one of many who have benefitted from The Arches' unique funding model. The shows he and his colleagues have produced are paid for by the substantial revenues the club generates (last year, it made up to an estimated £2 million). For more than 20 years, The Arches has depended on this model to produce and sustain its arts programme. Smith told me that theatre producers are beginning to wake up to this reality. "It'd be quite easy for the theatre artists to say, 'Right, OK, we'll back down because there's a short-term solution"—thanks to Creative Scotland and Glasgow City Council—"but all of us [club promoters and artists] are united in the fact that that's not a viable option, both practically and artistically. The Arches existing as a club in Glasgow is as much a part of its cultural scene as it is existing as a contemporary arts space."
The Arches is, according to a staffer I spoke to, "the hardest club to get into and the easiest one to get thrown out of." Its safety standards are stricter than most—comprehensive body searches, onsite paramedics, an open layout with few hiding places and pervasive security staff—but its indiscretions have irritated the authorities. In 2008, police officers visited a night at The Arches called Burly, an event popular with gay men, and found up to 30 people having sex in a space nominally reserved for those who wanted "a kiss and a cuddle." An order for the venue to be closed for six weeks followed. The incident brought on more police scrutiny, which has intensified since the death of an underage clubber, Regane MacColl, who fell ill after taking a Mortal Kombat-branded pill in February of last year. Police made a series of demands: for a brief period, the club was only able to admit patrons aged 21 or over, and there would be required "moments of calm," where the venue would be forced to stop the music and turn on the lights for five minutes every hour (the latter was never implemented).
Part of the issue with clubs dealing with police pressure is a lack of representation, something the newly established Night Time Industries Association aims to rectify. Its chairman, Alan Miller, told me that many NTIA members, in both Scotland and south of the border, are anxious about a climate where Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, would resort to closing large numbers of pubs and clubs in order to reduce crime, as he indicated in a speech earlier this year. "When a bank gets robbed," said Miller, "or if someone attacks someone at a Sainsbury's—or, indeed, a police station—there's no reason, quite rightly, for those places to be closed down. But when it comes to nightclubs and bars, people think it's acceptable to do that. Rather than looking at clubs as being responsible for problems, actually what we do is light up areas, we create jobs, we pay taxes, we have a massive multiplier effect."
He added: "We have to start making the industry be treated as an industry. Most nightclubs and bars are safer and more professional than anywhere else. To sanction them for doing what they're meant to be doing, and handing in items confiscated at the door is punishing them for being professional."
There have been no recent incidents comparable to, say, Castlemorton, a chaotic, week-long rave in 1992 whose backlash brought on the end of Britain's free party scene. Rather, the present situation has been the result of a slow burn on the decades-long wick of centre-right politics in Britain that, though pro-business, has been hostile to the nightlife industry. A recent Home Office report showed a steady year-on-year decline in the number of "licensed club premises" in England and Wales. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of such venues decreased by 1,900, a reduction of 11%. The death of an 18-year-old woman at fabric last year—reports said she had taken ecstasy—prompted a review of the venue's licence in December. She was one of four people to have died at the Farringdon nightspot in the last four years. (Setting this figure in context, Keith Reilly, a co-founder of the club, told the license review: "In 15 years we have had six million people come through our doors and, sadly, there have been four deaths.")
As with The Arches, the police response to drug deaths at fabric was to demand more restrictions in the name of safety. The Met recommended sniffer dogs, ID scanning and more CCTV coverage (none of which has been put in place as fabric continues to appeal the decision). Other pockets of the UK have been subject to police pressure, too. In Liverpool, an orchestrated drugs crackdown by police has closed several of the city's most popular nightclubs, including Republik and Lomax. In February, around 140 police officers raided Garlands after the venue was suspected of allowing drug dealing on its premises.
Elsewhere in Europe, in places like Switzerland and The Netherlands, this approach is turned on its head. Mirik Milan, the night mayor for Amsterdam, is one of the nighttime industry's leading advocates for harm reduction in clubs. He told me that in Switzerland, whose harm reduction policies are among the most liberal in Europe, dance music events have had no fatalities for seven years. In Portugal, drug use is treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one: possession is not an offence, and resources previously earmarked for policing drug use are now diverted to treatment programmes. Milan pointed to a more specific contrast between the UK and The Netherlands. "If you ban it from clubs and strike really hard down on it, then it will go underground in a scene where there's no control whatsoever. In Holland, with pill testing, there's a whole system. If there's a pill with PMA [also known as PMMA] or some other substance that shouldn't be there, there's an alarm system. For example, in the UK, there [was a problem with] Superman pills. These pills were also in the Dutch market, and they were caught because they had really high amounts of PMA in them. In Holland, as of today, no one has died from these pills." In the UK, meanwhile, four deaths have been linked to PMA-laced drugs. "You can see that the system works and everybody is aware," Milan continued. "Bad batches get off the market quickly."
Police Scotland appears to reflect UK-wide practice towards nightclubs and drug use, but closer inspection suggests The Arches has been at the mercy of a recent shift in context. Police Scotland, the second largest force in the country, came into being through the merger of eight regional divisions and the Scottish Police Services Authority in April 2013. Since its inception, it has been led by Sir Stephen House. His stewardship has been controversial, to put it mildly. He has spearheaded what national media has called "Strathclydisation," a shorthand for a less tolerant style of policing. Speaking at a lecture a few months after his appointment, Sir Stephen said: "My view is policing doesn't solve problems. We are not a solutions agency, we are a restraint agency."
Anecdotal accounts of the chief constable's tenure are not encouraging. The Scotsman's Dani Garavelli portrayed Sir Stephen as an autocrat and a "Dirty Harry" figure. A senior officer, speaking anonymously to the Daily Record, said he was a "control freak" and was "universally hated" by those within the force for imposing a more target-driven culture. A former senior officer I spoke to, who didn't want to be named, said Sir Stephen's stubbornness and failure to justify the force's actions has alienated too many people.
Leaving aside other controversies that have beset Sir Stephen's reign, present evidence suggests that the move towards Strathclydisation has warped Scotland's strategy towards drug crime. Dr Iain McPhee, a drugs and alcohol policy expert at the University Of The West Of Scotland, said Scotland's prosecution rate for drug dealing is nearly twice the average of other UK nations. According to Dr McPhee, this is due to a systematically aggressive approach to drug crime driven by "key performance indicators." Police, he said, often over-inflate the value of seizures; drug-dealing offences can be inferred from relatively small quantities of drugs.
"Prior to Police Scotland, police officers had discretion," McPhee said. "When it comes to controlled drugs, the recovery of controlled drugs and successful prosecutions became performance indicators in Scotland. So that in itself began to dictate police activity. And so, it can certainly be seen that police activity in Scotland appears to be quite different from what they do in England and Wales, in terms of how they police the Misuse Of Drugs Act and the discretion the officers are allowed to execute in the line of their normal duty. It seems that, if they are target-driven, then they are meeting the needs of these targets rather than meeting the needs of the community."
On the night of Sunday, March 29th, the police performed what one Arches staffer called a pre-emptive "raid" on the venue. In total, 26 drug and alcohol-related offences at The Arches were recorded, and police closed the club more than an hour early. Clubbers waiting in line were searched by police—something that, in the UK, is only permitted when a person is under arrest or imprisoned—and cited 15 for drug offences. As people walked out of the club after the early shutdown, some made it outside with drinks in hand. Officers waiting at the venue's Midland Street entrance cited them immediately—drinking alcohol in the street in Glasgow is illegal. The city council removed The Arches' late license weeks later.
Officers applied pressure in other ways, too. "We started to see unannounced police visits when we were requesting ambulances on the site to take people to hospital," said Dean Zielinski, the head of a first aid and harm reduction team at The Arches. "Whether that may be a slip that's caused a broken leg, or alcohol or drug intoxication. No matter what the cause, we started to see an instant police presence any time an ambulance was called, which then followed on for the police to request that we notify them before any ambulance was called onsite." When asked for comment, a Police Scotland spokesman said: "The matter may be subject to an appeal. We are therefore constrained by the level of information that we can provide."
By this point, The Arches was suffocating under police pressure. After the death of Regane MacColl, Arches staff were told to report every drug seizure on patrons entering the club, no matter how small. (Prior to MacColl's death, this only applied to larger quantities.) The cost of this increased cooperation with police has been a surge in reports of drug finds, which only weakened the venue's position. Two Arches staffers told me this was part of the police's long game to build a case against the club.
"Think how many people go through the doors and then think how many people are at T In The Park and Glastonbury," one told me as we huddled over a cafe table. "Every year, there are stabbings, people dying from drug deaths, all sorts of disturbances, people having their tents set on fire and all this. But these events still go ahead because the people in charge appreciate the massive lump sum that comes in from them and they can appreciate it from a cultural standpoint. I don't know if it's because it's so NME, Q Magazine-friendly or what—middle class guys on stage with guitars—and they don't understand dance music culture, but I don't see any calls for these events to be stopped."
"These people won't just stay in their houses now," the other said. "They'll still go out somewhere else but they'll go to venues which don't have the stringent door policy, don't have permanent first aiders, don't have drugs outreach programmes. They clearly don't necessarily care about people either, they just want the statistics off their spreadsheet."
In a statement released days after the club's closure, chief inspector Mark Sutherland, the city centre's area commander, said that the police's priority regarding The Arches was public safety and the prevention of crime and disorder. "It is my firm view that the frequency and volume of incidents that were occurring at The Arches nightclub would have resulted in fatal consequences had we not acted," he said.
But many believe the police have helped put clubbers in more danger, not less. Zielinski described a "ripple effect" where displaced regulars would go to venues—other clubs, house parties, illegal after-hours spaces—with fewer safety procedures. Other venues would hesitate to call ambulances for ill patrons, knowing it could attract police attention and suspicion. Clubbers may resort to putting their own safety at risk to avoid arrest—in April last year, a man queuing at The Arches fell into a coma after ingesting multiple ecstasy tablets when confronted by staff. In countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands, drug policies acknowledge practical truths and manage them accordingly. British authorities, on the other hand, consider illegal substances a wrinkle on society that closing a few clubs will iron out.
Nightclub owners and police no longer trust each other to deliver what both sides say they seek to facilitate: a safe environment where people can dance and enjoy themselves. The Arches, and many other clubs, go to a lot of effort to make this a reality. The police, squeezed by the law on one side and a reflexive distrust of electronic music on the other, often do the opposite.
The present legal framework only offers so much room for Scottish police to act, but the discretion with which they once operated no longer applies. The Glasgow City Council licensing board are an enigma. No one seems to know how this quasi-legal body operates, and, paralysed by perennial appeals, it often says very little. Nightclubs can, and should, do more to make patrons safe—the conflation of nightclubs and irresponsible drug use is one that industry spokespeople like Milan are eager to shake off. But sniffer dogs, ID scanning, CCTV and stop-and-search tactics are not the answer: these are gestures, not solutions. When Sir Stephen leaves his post—his contract runs out next year, and he is not expected to seek a renewal—a better relationship between nightclubs and police north of the border might be possible.
As things stand, a pyrrhic victory awaits Police Scotland. A fear of looking soft on drugs, together with what many view as a grudge against The Arches, will undo years of work the venue has put into making clubbers safer. Before the Arches was placed into administration, former Death Disco resident Alan Miller told me that the closure of the Arches would also herald the unravelling of an arts community unlike any other in Scotland.
"If The Arches closed entirely, it would be a terrible act of vandalism for the culture of the city," Miller said. "The Arches is a direct recipient of the culture and the creative spirit of the 1990 legacy—of the European City Of Culture which gave Glasgow its explosion, its cultural renaissance. To have the council allow one of the flagship projects of Glasgow's cultural renaissance to simply perish would be terrible. It would also send a very, very bad signal culturally across the whole of Scotland. If something as significant as that can just be allowed to die away, what remains in terms of hope for other venues which are trying to create new culture or dealing within cultural fields which are a little bit off the mainstream, a little bit more challenging, a little more edgy? If these places can't be sustained, and will become targets, then the cultural fabric is going to be very diminished."