Tower Hamlets council wants to curb anti-social behaviour in the area, but it may be at the expense of its prized curry trade
Much is made of the term "ecosystem" in promoting the complex way in which urban business clusters work. It's a positive term, of course, so the decision by Tower Hamlets council in east London to threaten the ecosystem of 40 or so Bangladeshi-owned curry houses on Brick Lane is surprising to say the least. The council has told the street's restaurants they must stop serving food by midnight or face a fine of £20,000, in a bid to curb the growing problem of anti-social behaviour. Restaurant owners, who say a third of their profit comes between midnight and 2am, warn the move could force them out of business.
Once a Jewish high street on the edge of the City, the southern end of Brick Lane has become synonymous with the curry trade, while the northern end is associated with trendy fashion outlets, clubs and coffee shops. In the 1980s and 1990s many Bangladeshi migrants and some of their children found the catering sector was a golden opportunity to make some money, as the rag trade – the traditional employment for migrants in the East End – slowly died.
This economic success story was recognised by the local council, which in 1999 authorised the creation of a "restaurant zone". It promoted a change of use of retail premises – clothing wholesalers and sari shops – to food and drink.
The number of restaurants serving Anglo-Bangladeshi food peaked at about 50 in 2005, but has since declined. The leases of some of those curry houses have been sold on and transformed into posh French and Swedish bistros. Brick Lane is undoubtedly steadily being transformed by a process of "super-gentrification".
When I made a study of the area in 2003-4, one of the great complaints from restaurant owners was the number of touts. It was harming the image of the restaurant sector, making "our people look like beggars", as one man told me. Despite periodic clampdowns by the council, touting still continues. In fact, it's now defended by some as creating a special atmosphere. "People expect it now," I was told by one tout recently. "Brick Lane wouldn't be the same without it."
But touting is a reflection of the fact that there are so many restaurants selling the same sort of food, competition is likely to be fierce. That's exacerbated by the fact that the lunchtime trade, when people working in the City used to cross Commercial Street, has more or less disappeared with changes in work practices at banks and other financial institutions. Nowadays, curry in Brick Lane and other parts of London is seen as an evening, not a daytime, food, unless of course it's Michelin-starred and served in Mayfair.
One of the other complaints I often heard was made by a number of recently arrived local residents, following in the footsteps of artists such as Gilbert and George, who had cottoned on to the relatively low prices of the 18th-century terraces in the handsome Spitalfields' streets adjacent to Brick Lane. They said the restaurant culture was disturbing their peace and quiet.
At the time, there was a debate being aired in other cities in the UK, such as Manchester and Newcastle, about the new "night-time economy" in inner-city areas, which was providing much-needed work for many otherwise unemployed locals. Back then, local authorities took a robust line. People shouldn't come to such areas expecting levels of suburban quiet, would-be incomers were told. There's still a lot of merit in that argument. So if there is a genuine problem with anti-social behaviour in Brick Lane and the surrounding streets, I suggest that the council should liaise with the police. That would be a better option than killing off the curry trade.
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image: © Tony Hisgett