‘Fear of the Night’ was the title of a conference I went to a couple of years back when the Night-Time Industries Association (NTIA) had just been formed by Alan Miller. The conference featured a speech and a report delivered by Professor Frank Furedi who argued that behind much of the opposition and hostility to the late-night economy was an irrational fear of the night. Bad things happen in the dark! It seemed a little fanciful to me at the time, but now I think he might have been on to something.

My experience of working in, and then later running nightclubs and late-night bars goes back to 1967, when, as a student, I first worked behind a bar. My employer was Berni Inns and the premises was a large basement Berni Inns steak restaurant and bar on Exchange Street East in the centre of Liverpool. The bar would close at 10.30 p.m. and we would finish cleaning up around 11 p.m. After 10.30 p.m. the only place you could get an alcoholic drink was in a nightclub. And a nightclub was the only place where a young barman could get bar work!

So, I would take off my Berni Inns tie and replace it with a clip-on bow tie, walk across the road to a club called the Pyramid Club in Temple Street, where I would work until the bar there closed at 2 a.m. Clean-up and taxis ordered by around 3 a.m. and that was the staffs’ day over. Except that sometimes you felt a bit hungry. Where to get a meal in Liverpool at 3 a.m. in 1967? There were two main options: one was Joe’s Café on the Dock Road – a former hangout of the Beatles before they became famous. The other was the Hole in the Wall at the Pier Head. This was a burger joint where you were served through a hatch protected by an iron grid!

So, back in the 1960s and right through to the early 1990s, when things really began to change, access to alcohol was quite strictly controlled – the ‘afternoon break’, the early closing of pubs, Sunday hours – and then a limited number of nightclubs where you had to pay an admission charge and high prices for the booze. I remember a pint of Double Diamond in a pub cost two shillings (10 pence). A half pint of the same beer in a nightclub cost four shillings (20 pence). I kid you not! And nightclubs had a dubious legal status. Before the law was modified to create proprietary clubs nightclub owners had to pretend they were members’ clubs operating not-for-profit, form a committee and all the rest of it.

So people would plan their night out around a set of licensing restrictions that represented a legacy of concern from the nineteenth century Temperance Movement – designed to restrict availability and keep prices high – sound familiar? A pub was where you did your drinking. A restaurant was where you went for a meal out, and alcohol was ancillary to that, although you could buy it until 11.30 p.m. and have a 30 minute drinking-up time. A nightclub is where you went for a dance opportunity and a late night drink that you paid through the nose for. All very neat and strictly controlled.

Contrast the picture I have painted above with the modern late-night economy. The introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 represented a decisive break with the past, and whilst commercially it has created new winners and losers – with the decline in nightclubs a particular example of a sector that has lost out, at least in terms of their numbers. This legislative change formalised changes that were already happening in the night-time economy where many of the outdated restrictions, such as the requirement for the availability of food and music and dancing if you opened late, were largely ignored. Consumers wanted more choice and more freedom. Initially the new licensing regime suffered the legacy effect of a night-time economy that had effectively become a youth ghetto with lots of pay-at-the-door discos. But in the 11 years since the 2003 Act went ‘live’ we have seen nothing short of a revolution in terms of what the night-time economy now provides. ‘Innovation’ and ‘diversification’ are what now characterise the NTE and it is unrecognisable when compared to how things were back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

When I look around Liverpool today and compare it to the city I grew up in – and spent my formative years in the licensed trade working in – the change for the better has been vast. Licensing law and regulation provides the framework within which hospitality operates, flourishes or fails to flourish. The abolition of outdated restrictions, categories of licensed premises, myriad permissions and licensing hours set nationally has facilitated the development of chameleon premises that can have a totally different business model for lunchtime, early evening and then late evening. In Liverpool we have all the national chains represented as well as a lively independent sector – represented by people like Paul Adams (featured elsewhere in this edition) – who are willing to pioneer new concepts for an increasingly sophisticated consumer.

But even before the 2003 Act came into effect the moral panic set in and the forces of reaction set about trying to reinstate the past. We can all remember the doom and gloom and dire predictions that accompanied the introduction of what the Daily Mail dubbed the “24-hour drinking Act”. Increases in drunkenness, in underage drinking, in binge drinking and in alcohol-related crime were all predicted. Give people increased freedom to make their own choices and they will inevitably make bad choices. This essentially Puritanical perception of the world is alive and well both inside and outside of Parliament. And yet the reality has been so different from the fears of those who want to turn the clock back. Underage drinking, binge drinking, arrests for drunkenness and alcohol-related crime – howsoever defined – have all fallen dramatically.

This is not to disguise that there are problem premises or areas where life for local people is subject to a lot of disturbance. But I would argue that the overall picture since the changes wrought by the 2003 Act is overwhelmingly positive. We now have a night-time economy that boasts huge diversity, innovative premises and high standards of safety. We are at last seeing some recognition of the importance of the NTE with the appointment of a Night Mayor and Night Commission in London and hopefully elsewhere. This should act as a welcome counter-balance to those whose view of late-night licensing is stuck in the past where mass volume vertical drinking establishments were the norm and the lager lout, the binge drinker and ‘bench girl’ were the predominant images that people had of our night-time economy.

As the reality percolates through, maybe ‘fear of the night’ will subside.

Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on alcohol and health policy