As Angus Finlayson explains, the real reason for London's club crisis might have been overlooked.
On Sunday, August 7th, fabric closed its doors for possibly the last time. The morning before, an 18 year-old clubgoer, Jack Crossley, had collapsed and died at the club. Another 18-year-old, Ryan Browne, had died in hospital after a visit to fabric less than two months earlier. As a result of the deaths, Islington police made a recommendation to Islington council that the club's license be reviewed. On Friday, August 12th, the license was suspended as an interim step.
In the run-up to the licensing review on Tuesday, September 6th, a petition in support of the club attracted more than 140,000 signatures, but it was no use. After a six-hour hearing including evidence from the Metropolitan Police, fabric director Cameron Leslie and other representatives of London nightlife, the licensing committee's three councillors decided to revoke the club's license permanently.
"A culture of drugs exists at the club which the existing management and security appear incapable of controlling," said sub-committee chair Flora Williamson. "This sub-committee has considered adding further conditions, but has come to the conclusion that this would not address the serious concern that they have with management of the premises."
The closure shocked the global dance music community and made national and international news. Fabric's campaign to fund its appeal of the decision has, at time of writing, raised over £250k in donations. This enormous response isn't only down to the club's reputation. Coming after a wave of panic over the demise of UK music venues, the closure has caused another round of soul-searching. How could such an iconic, long-standing venue simply close overnight?
Of course, the deaths of Crossley and Browne—part of a string of six linked to fabric dating back to 2011—were a galvanising factor, and their tragedy should not be diminished. Nobody should die on a night out. But the fact that they still do might not be a result of failures on the clubs' part. (As Leslie said during the licensing review, fabric has "the highest annual security bill and the highest ratio of security guards to patrons of any venue in the UK.")
Other factors, beyond any club's jurisdiction, may be to blame: a spike in the purity of MDMA, which caused annual ecstasy and MDMA-related deaths to increase sixfold between 2010 and 2014; seizures of ecstasy supplies that have encouraged more dangerous pseudo-ecstasy tablets to enter the market; or a lack of education in a society still committed to a flawed prohibition model.
Many felt that there was an ulterior motive to fabric's closure. Particularly when it emerged that a police operation running since at least July—testimonies from which were used as evidence in the licensing review—was named after a brand of fabric softener, Lenor. Speculation was rife, and the finger was often pointed at a familiar London bogeyman: gentrification.
But the theories weren't convincing. One—that the closure was due to a planned Museum Of London close to fabric's Smithfield Market location—is easy for Leslie, fabric's director, to rubbish. "It's a completely different building, a completely different part of this area, and it's got absolutely nothing to do with it."
Another was outlined in a puzzling Independent article that the closure was orchestrated "by a cash-strapped [Islington] council" because "fabric may have made money locally, yet that money never made it's [sic] way back" to the local authorities.
Islington council responded stating that they have "no financial interest in the site." In fact, fabric's owners have a stake in the building, through the company Fabric Life Ltd, meaning that removing the club against its will would be difficult. Even if it were replaced with residential property, the numbers don't add up. Fabric, Leslie says, pays business rates of £250,000 a year. You'd need to cram 200-odd flats onto the site to make a similar return from council tax; any extra income would be pocket change for a council.
Some suggested that the closure was a conspiracy by real estate developers keen to get their hands on the building. Given the structure of a licensing review hearing—in which local councillors make a decision based on a narrow set of "licensing objectives," all of which have to do with the reduction of crime and public nuisance—the only way developers could influence the decision would be through outright corruption.
The members of London's club industry I spoke to considered this unlikely. "That would be giving way too much credence to people sitting down and really working something through," Leslie said. "There's no property play involved. I can guarantee it."
In fact, the public perception that London's clubland woes are mostly down to gentrification seems to be out of date.
This was undoubtedly the cause of an earlier wave of club closures: Velvet Rooms, taken over by developers in 2003; Bagley's (later Canvas), The Cross and The Key, kicked out by their landlords, Network Rail, during the regeneration of King's Cross in 2007; Turnmills, replaced by an office block when its lease expired in 2008; and the End, whose owners accepted an offer from developers in 2009. Gentrification also comes into play when clubs are threatened by noise complaints from (often new) residential neighbours. (A sturdy application of the Agent Of Change principle, which London mayor Sadiq Khan has just thrown his weight behind, would help solve this problem.)
Gentrification is, of course, a profound threat to the arts in London, and big changes in attitude and legislation are needed to reverse its effects. But if you talk to London's club owners, they're also likely to bring up a different problem. One which, in the 2010s, has arguably become a more urgent threat to the city's club culture, and of which fabric is the most visible, but by no means only, victim.
Andy Peyton, director of The Columbo Group, which counts XOYO and Phonox among its venues, describes it as "death by a thousand cuts," a reference to the effects of the UK government's austerity measures, its response in 2010 to the global financial crisis.
This is what closed Dance Tunnel, which shuttered earlier this year due to a hostile "licensing climate" in Hackney. It made Brick Lane's two-decade-old Vibe Bar, which closed in 2014 after increasingly severe licensing conditions—including the installation of an ID scanner and a curfew on the bar's outside courtyard—financially unviable. The managers of the beloved Plastic People, which bowed out in early 2015, never gave reasons for the closure. But, after a 2010 licensing review saddled the club with strict regulations regarding layout and noise level, it seemed to suffer a similar slow death.
"Behind the scenes, we're seeing an awful lot of pressure," says Peyton. "Every single change, every single licensing implementation leads to a cost. And it rules out the existence of a lot of venues."
He gives me some examples of the licensing hoops XOYO has to jump through. "We have stewards on either end of the road, over 100 metres away from the venue, shushing people on land that isn't ours, because we're required to." There have been fewer than ten fights at the venue since Peyton started running it, "But if there's a fight, we have to go and appear before the council and they come up with solutions to what they deem to be a problem. You don't convene a board of police officers and licensing if there's a fight in Tesco, you know?"
If Vibe Bar's ID scanners didn't seem intrusive enough, a Met Police pilot scheme last year required clubs to breathalyse punters on entry to discourage "pre-loading." Alan Miller, Vibe Bar's former owner and head of the Night Time Industries Association, an organisation set up last year to fight clubland's corner, recalls attending a meeting in Camden after venues had achieved a massive 800% reduction in crime. Police still weren't satisfied, and chastised the venues for a resultant 20% increase in crime outside the venues. "That's the mentality," he says.
There's disagreement as to when exactly all this started, but an early flashpoint was a campaign against phone crime that began in 2012.
Phone theft had been on the rise in the capital since the late '00s, due to the increased popularity of valuable smartphones. It was never convincingly proven that the problem was worse at clubs, but the vagaries of insurance policies could make it look that way. If you lose your phone on a night out, you have to report it stolen to make an insurance claim, and it's simplest to say that it was stolen in the club.
The police "got in touch with all the big clubs and said, 'sort out the phone thing, or we'll take your license away, because you're a hub for crime,'" recalls Peyton. Fabric, who had been trying to tackle the problem before the Met came calling, took some particularly extreme measures.
"We were the first ones to do exit searches, that had never existed before," Leslie recalls. "We had dummy phones in girls' bait-trap handbags, and then on exit an RFI barcode would go off. We were looking at this American prison technology that was scanning for non-ferrous metal—[it detects] weapons and things that aren't made from iron or steel—to scan for people who had more than one phone."
The police's own suggestions weren't always helpful, and in some cases the clubs kicked against them. "They asked us to buy wristbands and put them on every single person that came into every single club in London—it would've costs tens and tens of thousands of pounds—that said, 'Watch out for your phone getting stolen'," says Peyton. "All the clubs came together and said, 'No, it won't make any difference.' And they hated that we said that."
In the end, it wasn't anything the clubs did that solved the problem. Thefts dropped "overnight," Leslie says, when manufacturers began including kill switches in smartphones. But a precedent had been set.
"It was the beginning of the idea that the police force could reduce crime by putting pressure on certain relatively defenceless groups, such as nightclubs," says Peyton. "And that has continued since."
What's behind this policing tactic? In a word: cuts. Under austerity, the average council budget has been cut by a fifth since 2010. The Met Police had £500m lopped off its £3bn budget between 2011 and 2016.
Fabric had long had a good working relationship with the police, but Leslie started to notice a "fundamental change" a few years ago, "particularly around the licensing sergeants. These savage cuts [to police funding] cut away a lot of the officers that seemed to understand the night-time economy." Instead, the club was "suddenly having to report into stats-driven offices that were heat mapping based around crime generation."
"They were looking at the crime generated from fabric in the same way that they were looking at crime generated from a 50-capacity bar and saying, 'This venue has got five times more mobile phone theft than anywhere else in the borough.' Well yeah, we're also attracting maybe 20 times more people than anywhere else in the borough. There was no consideration to proportionality. It was purely down to reported stats."
A fixation on stats—a cheap way to demonstrate effectiveness when resources are tight—was one outcome of the cuts. Another was, as Miller puts it, an effort "to make bars and clubs the policeman on the streets," outsourcing expensive crime reduction measures onto the venues themselves. The breathalysers, ID scanners and theft awareness campaigns are just the most visible of these measures. Leslie bemoans "the layer upon layer of security that you've got to add in all the time in response to problems. Literally every time you have a problem it's just, 'Throw more security at it.' And that security gets anchored as a constant cost. You're adding tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs every year."
Industry figures, such as Dan Beaumont, I spoke to were keen to point out that the police are victims of circumstance as much the clubs, but it might be reasonable to blame their command. The Metropolitan Police got a new commissioner in 2011, at around the time that clubs' troubles began. Bernard Hogan-Howe had previously been with Merseyside Police, where a steep drop in crime and "anti-social behaviour" had been achieved through, among other things, the closure of 46 pubs and clubs in the city centre in the space of two years.
Among the tactics he brought to London were "big wing" days, in which massive resources are mobilised against a single crime: nightlife got one of these in 2012, when, as part of licensing crackdown Operation Condor, 175 officers piled into Brick Lane's 93 Feet East.
Last year, after further cuts of over £1bn were announced for the force between 2016 and 2020, Hogan-Howe gave a speech to the RSA outlining how the Met might survive them. He pinpointed "two of our biggest drivers of criminality—alcohol and drugs," suggesting that a crackdown on licensing should be "a priority for local authorities, however much they would like to develop local economies… Do we really need as many licensed premises chasing limited business?"
Not all police forces have taken the same approach. Miller praises Greater Manchester Police's work with the Warehouse Project on a drugs testing scheme. London seems to be a long way from this sort of productive cooperation.
Slowly, however, attitudes are changing. Last year, the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, set up a Music Venues Taskforce to look into the issue; their report recommended the appointment of a "night czar" to give clubs a voice in policy decisions. Miller's NTIA, founded last May, has been working to change the view of clubs as hotbeds of crime and anti-social behaviour.
"In the last year and a half we've tried really hard to undermine that narrative and say, 'Look, there are some costs, like with an airport or motorway: people die on the motorway, lots of things happen'," Miller says. "But the benefits to society are so immense, and so fundamental to who we are, that we try and mitigate the costs, we try and offset them, but we don't say, 'When they arrive we shut things down.'"
Miller thinks that "the police and others have begun to understand" their message, and are "becoming nervous" about taking a narrow-minded, stats-driven approach to policing clubs. In some ways, he says, the recent treatment of fabric is a "legacy of the old thinking."
But it's not just attitudes that need to change, it's also legislation. It's legislation that means that a club like fabric can, after 17 years of operation, be closed down overnight. It's legislation that puts such a club at the mercy of flimsy police evidence, and means that the opinion of the public, local MPs and high-profile artists counts for absolutely nothing.
Leslie learnt this first hand in 2014, when fabric's licence came up for review for the first time. A review can be recommended by an authority like the police when it thinks that a venue may have breached the terms of its license. In fabric's case, this wasn't entirely to do with the recent drug-related deaths. Their license would have been secure had they accepted 53 new licensing conditions imposed on them by Islington council. But a handful of these conditions were, fabric decided, actually detrimental to the safety of clubbers and the prevention of crime. ID scanners could lead to violence as waiting times at the door were massively increased; sniffer dogs might cause clubgoers to panic and take all of their drugs at once.
A District Judge agreed with them, after the club lost the licensing review and won an appeal at a Magistrates' court. By then they had spent a year and large sums of money fighting the decision; a smaller club would have simply been forced to close.
"Those licensing hearings, the way that they're structured... I wouldn't say it's a kangaroo court, but you are guilty until proven innocent," said Leslie. "In my opinion there are very few situations where an operator's going to be able to come out of that unless they are just crucified, flayed alive."
The problem can be traced back to the 2003 Licensing Act. This made 24-hour licenses possible, but also delegated licensing decisions from a Magistrates' court—where a legally trained judge makes the decisions, and where evidence has to be held to a certain standard—to a committee of local councillors, usually with no legal expertise. This means that questionable evidence, like Islington Police's absurd claims about "glazed red eyes," isn't properly scrutinised. (Clubs can present evidence too, but, as Alex Benson from Bloc observes, "Councillors are more minded to listen to police than they are rave promoters.")
It also means that decisions are made based on much narrower criteria. Since councillors often have no specialist knowledge, the Licensing Act gives them four "licensing objectives" to follow. Their job is simply to decide whether a venue has violated one of these objectives, which are solely focussed on the prevention of crime and anti-social behaviour. The positive impact of a venue, in terms of culture or tourism for instance, is not considered. Anything outside of these four criteria—a massive international campaign from the dance music community, say—is simply irrelevant.
It is "right and proper" that locally-elected councillors "make decisions which affect their local area," says Benson. "However, decisions such as the closure of fabric have national, if not international, consequences. Just as planning decisions are taken with reference to the importance of the amenity of, say, a power station, so the cultural capital brought by a venue should be able to form a part of this process."
In the end, fabric's fate was decided by forces outside the Met or Islington council. At least, that's Leslie's theory. He thinks that the Central Licensing Authority decided that the club had to go, and exploited this unfair system accordingly.
"They were there during our court hearing in December, and in our honest opinion they came out of that and made it their business to get fabric. They would have no doubt been laying the ground plans that ultimately came to Operation Lenor. When the time came, they had a well thought-out strategy. The process was against us every step of the way. There is no way that that whole system could support anything other than the revocation of that licence."
This system needs to change so that other clubs are protected from a similar fate. Fabric has a series of "short amendments to Guidance under the Licensing Act 2003" which it will fight for as part of its appeal. These include making it harder for the police to close a venue on a dime while its license is under review; making sure that, in licensing reviews, evidence from the police isn't given undue weight; and encouraging licensing committees to consider the positive, as well as negative, impact of a venue.
This is why the case is important for all of UK nightlife. Only fabric, with a global media profile and financial support from fans and the industry, is in a position to get these changes made. The club's appeal will be heard at Highbury Magistrates' Court on Monday, November 28th. Success is far from certain.
"I don't think we're in any position to be confident at the moment," Leslie said. "We've got a real uphill struggle on our hands. I hope that the case is going to be a tipping point, whether fabric comes through this or not."