Inside Track by Mark Stretton
A Thunderer column in The Times last week introduced a new verb: “to bansturbate”. This fusion of two words refers to the banning of things and the near-sexual frisson of pleasure seemingly gained by those who pass such laws. Much of the urge to ban, wrote The Times, was driven by the fear that some people somewhere maybe enjoying themselves; the rest by the terror of politicians and bureaucrats who fear that if they didn’t do something, anything, we might begin to wonder why we pay them. It’s a theme familiar to many in the eating and drinking-out market. Reading the article I couldn’t help thinking of a recent discussion forum held by the Restaurant Property Advisers Society (RPAS), bringing together operators, property specialists, lawyers, police and Westminster councillors to consider leisure in London, asking if it was out of control? For some, like councillors and police, the capital’s late-night economy is out of control – too much noise, too many people, too much late-night activity revolved around drinking, and associated disorder. For operators (and advisers), the level of control, red tape and general paralysis of the market brought about by the iron fist of Westminster was what was actually out of control. Glenys Roberts, a council member – and Daily Mail columnist – did not disappoint in airing a string of anti-industry, puritanical views that the Times’ bansturbator column spoke of. Among other things, Roberts complained about the influx of people coming into the West End, restaurant noise and that London’s parks were now overrun by food and beverage operations. Her views were predictably at odds with senior people from the sector who decried the over-simplistic saturation policy that makes the granting of new licences and the extension of existing ones almost impossible. Julian Skeens, a leading licensing lawyer from the firm Jeffrey Green Russell, highlighted this with the example of Joel Rubuchon’s recently-opened upscale London restaurant, which had faced an arduous struggle to win permission for a licensed bar above the restaurant that would allow diners to enjoy a digestif after their meals. There was discernable frustration at the inadequate infrastructure of central London – an antiquated tube system that shuts down absurdly early, an obvious lack of taxi ranks and a woefully inadequate provision of night buses. The tension between these two sets of diametrically opposed stakeholders is not new but what became clear through the course of the discussion was that London, with the 2012 Games just around the corner, was being held back in its development as one of the great global cities by a council representing a mere 7,000 residents. In financial terms London is now the leading city in the world, with the value of equity trading now exceeding that of the New York exchanges. In terms of stature, London’s position at the top table was also not in question but there was unanimous agreement that the capital’s leisure offering lagged behind other vibrant 24-hour cities such as Barcelona, New York, Paris and Tokyo. There is a propensity to be overly obsessed with London, especially the media – and apparently there are other major cities in the UK – but London is important, especially in its international context. It is a shop window for our historic smoke-free pubs, cutting-edge bars and the swathe of UK eating-out chains that are already establishing an international presence. So what to do? With the Olympics fast approaching, something has to give. There needs to be greater pressure placed upon the Mayor’s Office to grip the issue of London’s infrastructure. This is a big, complex and expensive problem, not helped by the unions who object to the tube running into the night. Solving this issue is in everyone’s interests and the bansturbators of Westminster would do well to focus some of their energies on the bigger picture. Greater joined up thinking between operators could be the answer. Skeens’ victory in the battle for a 7am licence at nightclub Movida – won on the grounds of staggered closing would ease the problem of large numbers of people emerging onto London’s streets at the same time – shows it is possible to beat the saturation policy. But it is expensive. Maybe joint-funding for some actions would be worth considering? This again, requires big-picture thinking. There is also a strong argument that there needs to be more intervention from central government in the policies that shapes the future of central London. The businesses that operate in the area should have more of a say, like they do in the City of London. London 2012 is not just about a dodgy logo but a chance to showcase all that is great about the city and the UK. Given the billions that will spent hosting the event, the opportunity must be maximised. But all the while the future of London is subject to an overly-politicised process – and in the hands of Westminster – the bansturbators will continue to triumph at the expense of the development of a great city.