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‘I’m still on the front line’: London Night Czar Amy Lamé on fighting for London’s grassroots venues

The Night Czar tells PSNEurope about the challenges facing the capital’s live music scene and what she is doing to combat them

For the past two and a half years, London’s first ever Night Czar, Amy Lamé, has been busy working with music venues, local authorities and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to bolster the capital’s night time economy and support and sustain its live music scene. Daniel Gumble paid her a visit to find out what she’s accomplished so far and what the future holds for the live sector…

A small meeting room located somewhere in the middle of London’s hive-like City Hall is where PSNEurope finds a beaming Amy Lamé on an overcast morning in the capital. We’re here to discuss her first two and a half years in the role of London Night Czar, a newly created position into which she was installed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2017. Her mission is to improve all facets of London nightlife – to make it safer, more profitable and to protect and nurture venues and places of cultural significance. Among these are London’s vital yet rapidly declining LGBT clubs and grassroots music venues – 61 per cent and 35 per cent of which have been lost in the past 10 years, respectively.

It’s a task as vast as it is complicated. Some of the biggest obstacles facing the night time economy in London will require local authorities, the government and venue owners to work together and review their approach to business in ways that have never been done before. It’s a challenge, however, that Lamé is relishing, and will require every bit of guile, grit and enthusiasm she can muster. All of which, as anyone who has met Lamé can testify, she possesses in abundance. What’s more, she has plenty of experience running live events in the capital to draw on. She still hosts a night every Saturday at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and has been closely engaged with politics as a vocal activist and campaigner for the Labour party. She was Mayor of Camden in 2010-11 and has been a constant presence in the media as a broadcaster, journalist, comedian and performer.

So, how would she sum up her first two and a half years as Night Czar? “It’s been full of opportunity and lots of challenges,” she says. “Among the standout things I’ve been able to introduce are the Women’s Night Safety Charter and the Women’s Night Safety Summit. We’ve produced a world leading report, Think Night, which is the most comprehensive data study into any city at night. It’s given us so much information that will set the foundation for decisions going forward. In the past, some people have had particular views of what a city at night is, so we’ve been trying to bust those myths. We’ve been drilling down into just how much the music industry is worth to our city and how many people there are working at night. We know the music industry is worth £4.4 billion to our city; we know there are 1.6 million people regularly working in the evening – that’s a third of London’s workforce. We’re taking an overall strategic view of London at night, and that’s been a big piece of work.”

Given the extent of her research into London night life, Lamé has been encouraged and surprised by some of the data that has been mined – particularly when it comes to debunking negative and unfounded stereotypes about city life after the sun goes down.

“Some of the things that were surprising to me and a lot of people was the amount of alcohol related crime – it’s very low,” she tells us. “Only 4.3 per cent of all crimes reported at night are alcohol related. And I’ve had people look at me and say, ‘Well that can’t be true’. But I work in a fake news free zone! And that is based on ONS (Office for National Statistics) data on top of Metropolitan Police data on top of NHS data. These figures go towards busting the myth that the city at night is just full of drunk people on the streets, when in reality we’ve found that you are more likely to be admitted to A&E for a sports injury at night than you are for an alcohol related injury.”

However, it’s not all about research and surveys. As Lamé is well aware, one of the biggest and most pressing challenges she faces is in stemming the flow of venue closures – especially LGBT clubs, nightclubs and grassroots music venues – across the capital.

“These are essential cultural spaces that are not only the cultural backbone of nights out in London, but are huge sources of employment,” she says. “People often think about things from a user perspective, but my background is in running events and club nights, and I know from a worker perspective just how important these venues are for people’s livelihoods as well. When I came into the role we’d lost 35 per cent of our grassroots live music venues in the last 10 years. We’d lost 61 per cent of our LGBT spaces. We’d lost 25 per cent of our pubs. This is serious. And I’m proud to say that we’ve been able to work with and help save 220 venues [over the past two and a half years].”

She continues: “We’ve been able to steady the ship, so no net gain or loss over the past 12 months. We needed to press pause and say, ‘What are these issues and what can we do?’ Now we’re starting to see venues open – we had Printworks open and they are opening a new venue in West London, so we’re seeing some positive steps.”

A major factor affecting London’s live music scene is the recent hike in business rates and the ever-present threat of property developers. According to Lamé, while this threat is unlikely to diminish any time soon, City Hall has been doing its utmost to help remedy the situation and give venues a fighting chance of survival.

“There are a number of factors that pose a big threat to so many cultural spaces,” she explains. “And we see a pattern that LGBT and grassroots music venues share. Business rates for a lot of these spaces have gone through the roof and that is a difficult challenge, especially when a lot of these places are operating on small profit margins. Also, commercial rents and rent reviews have contributed to the problem. And we saw rapid expansion in development under the previous Mayor [Boris Johnson] and no care was taken around the closure of venues or their repurposing. We’ve been able to put policies into place over the past two and a half years to help mitigate that. We’ve got the Agent Of Change principle, which will make sure that any new developments are built to be soundproofed. We’re making sure that if we lose a venue due to development that we have the possibility to replace the space with something similar.”

As Lamé elaborates, the path to successfully turning the city’s fortunes around is a long one. And anyone expecting a quick fix is likely to be disappointed. During her two and a half years in the role – the first half of which was only part-time – she has had her fair share of critics, some of whom were expecting bigger, more immediate changes. But how does she view her performance so far?

“It’s been interesting,” she ponders. “The title can set up a lot of expectation. When I was appointed we had some really serious challenges. It was around the time Fabric closed and a lot of people were really upset and worried about what could be done to save these spaces. My background is in grassroots activism in the LGBT community, running clubs and community events, so I understand the importance of having your feet very firmly planted in the grassroots scene and not being afraid to say boo to a goose if needs be. I cut my teeth running a campaign for over 20 years to save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and standing up to some quite challenging behaviour from international property developers who wanted to knock down a much loved LGBT space and build a three star hotel.

“I’ve brought all of that passion and knowledge from campaigning, learning licensing and understanding how the system works. But I depend on relationships with the community. I can’t do it all myself. I really encourage people to get in touch with me if they have any information because we might have another piece of the puzzle that we can then fit together. Those relationships are essential. I don’t have a magic wand.”

And her message for those who have cast doubt on her performance over the past two and a half years?

“Firstly, I share the same passions for London at night as those people do,” she concludes. “I don’t see it as us coming at it from opposite sides. We all want to see the same results, which is London at night being safe, diverse, buoyant for good employment and for us to be the envy of the world. Sometimes the criticism gets a bit personal and I find that a little unfair, but it’s part of the job. We carry on and we do the best we can with the powers we have. It’s a really new role. When I took it on there had been so much anger and there was so much that hadn’t been done for so long that people were impatient. I understand that. But I’d rather work with than against people that I see as having the same outlook as me. I’m still running my club every Saturday. I’m still on the frontline in Vauxhall on a Saturday night and that’s a really important part of what I do to keep my feet on the ground and to meet people and hear what they need and want. But I’m not superwoman.”