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Killing London's nightlife: where's the mayor when you need him?

By Emma Hartley - Thu, 12th Oct 2017

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Tower Hamlets council voted on 20 September to bring into force the Late Night Levy, a tax on premises serving alcohol between midnight and 6am. By doing so it hoped to raise around £625,000 a year – according to data produced by the council –  a minimum of 70% of which will go to the borough's police.

This made it the fifth central London borough to bring in this measure: Hackney, City of London, Islington and Camden already have the levy, asking their venues to pay between £299 and £4,400 a year to support the police on top of the nine existing taxes they pay that already do exactly this - and this all despite a promise from the mayor Sadiq Khan, to support the night-time economy. See below for a list of these taxes.

However, if Tower Hamlets had looked around to see how the night time levy has worked in other places in the country it may have reached the conclusion that it wasn't a very good idea after all.

In Cheltenham, for instance, the Late Night Levy came in in 2014 and was got rid of two years later after raising only about half the money that had been projected. Colin Pilsworth, of the Cheltenham Chamber of Commerce, told me: "A number of venues, particularly the smaller ones, varied their licences so they no longer stayed open after midnight in order to avoid the levy. So the amount of money raised was less than had been hoped for."

In other words bars, restaurants, pubs and clubs closed down earlier to avoid paying the tax - at the expense of the town's nightlife.

The recent decision by Tower Hamlets looks more cavalier in this light because the cases of London and Cheltenham are very different from each other. Put frankly: no one moves to Cheltenham for the nightlife, whereas the whole reason people choose to live in the capital is because of the choices it offers and the promise it holds of a different lifestyle; the possibility of leading the kind of life you simply can't lead, for instance, in Cheltenham. 

So it is hard to understand that whereas Cheltenham addressed the issue, Tower Hamlets - and the other four boroughs - seem determined to throttle the life out of their night time economy. After all, London's borough councils already have the power to vary the licences of venues to which the police are regularly called: if the issue were disorderly conduct attributable to specific venues this is exactly what would be done. By comparison the Late Night Levy is indiscriminate and punitive across the entire late night economy in a way that looks uncomfortably like milking a politically weak sector in order to pander to the police. Imagine being a local government official and having a rough, tough police officer come to you begging you for money: depending on your attitude to uniforms and authority you'd either be flattered, aroused or scared.

Where are the mayor and his "night czar" when you need them? Appointing a three-day-a week figurehead - yes, I'm talking about you, Amy Lame - to make it look as if you're in favour of supporting the night time economy is one thing but actually doing it is another. It's true that London's late-night venues are easy pickings for tax-raising authorities as they are mainly independents and therefore have very little clout politically. But surely the mayor isn't prepared to throw them under a bus after all those statements in support of London's nightlife? What, after all, is the point of the night tube if there's nothing open after midnight?

I repeatedly called City Hall for a statement and after more than a week of fruitless waiting this is the closest I've had from the mayor's underwhelming and inefficient press office: "The Late Night Levy is not our policy. It's between the police and the councils." 

So there you have it. Remember this the next time you see or hear a policy statement from the mayor or the night czar about the wonders of late-night London: it's all just window dressing until you also hear them telling the boroughs to get rid of the Late Night Levy. 

Business rates, VAT, alcohol duty, licensing fees (personal, premises, gaming machines, etc),  auto-enrolment pensions costs, national living wage, national minimum wage, apprenticeship levy (where applicable), national insurance contributions, corporation tax.

we to talk about late nights!