“It will be a tough fight, and there are no quick solutions,” says Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s Night Mayor. Milan is talking about his keynote address at Sydney’s Electronic Music Conference in two weeks: how can Sydney’s nightlife come back from the lockout laws?
The 35-year-old former club promoter is a good person to ask. Since 2012, Milan’s job as Amsterdam’s Nachtburgemeester is to oversee the city’s nightlife. It’s a role created – and, since 2014, paid for – by both the city’s government and a coalition of night-time businesses to combat alcohol- and drug-related violence.
But where Sydney imposed lockout times, 10pm takeaway liquor restrictions and a 3am service-closure for venues in the CBD and inner-city to try and solve the same issue, Amsterdam has trialed 24-hour venue licenses. They’ve also decreased the visible police presence in Rembrandtplein, a central square Milan compares to King’s Cross. Police hang back while social workers – paid for by local venues and the city government – provide a hand and diffuse any potential disputes.
“I think nightlife is seen as an industry which is only problems – that it can’t work,” says Milan. “[But from that perspective] you miss the idea that the whole city benefits from having an active nightlife – economically, socially, culturally – and I think this is something which has happened in Sydney.
“The solution is not killing an industry, as what’s happened in King’s Cross. If you want to create behavioural change, you have to look at how you make the biggest impact, and that’s not by closing down bars and nightclubs.”
Amsterdam’s 24-hour licenses have so far been restricted to outer-city suburbs, which Milan says prevents the bottlenecking of punters onto the street when they all leave a mass of clubs in one neighbourhood at a similar time. Milan is also working at designing a city with nightlife in mind.
“We’re also focusing on public spaces, like obstacles: Is it easy to get a cab? How is the lighting in the square?” says Milan. “There’s a project called “Designing Out Crime”, which focuses on designing light spaces and considering how people move around at night in order to create safe areas.”
Many of Keep Sydney Open’s policy proposals during this year’s roundtable discussion – like improved public transport, state-funded anti-violence campaigns – are based off Amsterdam and other successful night-time economies, says Keep Sydney Open founder Tyson Koh.
“We need someone with an understanding of late-night scenes,” says Koh. “There’s a real deficit in the government’s understanding of night-time culture and the point of a night mayor is that the government has someone to defer to who understands our nightlife and its needs. Most politicians haven’t gone out for years, if not decades.”
After the discussions, the roundtable recommended exemptions for select live music venues as well as a half-hour extension on lockouts, as well as pushing take-away liquor licenses from 10pm to 11pm. For both Milan and Keep Sydney Open, it’s not enough. “If you catch me on a bad day, I’d call these recommendations insulting,” says Koh.
Milan is the first to acknowledge nightlife has a “bad side,” but argues that Amsterdam’s 15 per cent decrease in violence since the trial licenses began is impressive, especially given an estimated 50 per cent increase in pedestrian foot traffic.
“What I always say is ‘treat people with facts and not emotions’,” says Milan. “These things are really hard to crack, especially when the city isn’t that interested in what you have to say,” says Milan.
Since 2014, there’s been a 40 per cent decrease in violent night-time incidents in Sydney, yet according to Koh, there’s been a 40 per cent decrease in pedestrian traffic and trade across many clubs.
“That’s not a solution,” says Koh. “The laws were supposed to make nightlife safer, not decrease nightlife.”
The involvement and financial support of night-time businesses has been imperative to creating Milan’s role. “Getting this debate on the table is the first step,” says Milan, “but it’s also important that all of the businesses rally with Keep Sydney Open and also put forward some money to shape the communities and the areas they’re in.”
Yet last month, it was revealed that a $55 million King’s Cross property development deal was being discussed with local nightclub and business owners since the lockout laws were introduced.
While Milan admits it’s difficult to say no to that amount of money, he remains hopeful and stresses that his own job was created after a decade of debate and discussion. “What is immediately possible is to have some quick wins,” says Milan. “You get more people behind you and work from there and try to interfere and win the media over, win city hall over and then state government.”
Koh says that’s the plan.
“Mike Baird has a fight on his hands if he thinks these small concessions will pipe us down. Half an hour more of nightlife is not befitting of a world city like Sydney.”
Mirik Milan is the keynote speaker at Sydney’s Electronic Music Conference, held on November 28 to December 2. For the full line-up of speakers and musicians, see electronicmusicconference.com.