Bristol’s pioneering approach to drink-spiking scourge

31 January 2023

Night Mayors

On a dark and dreary November night, Bristol flickers into life under the watchful eye of its first ‘night mayor’, Carly Heath.

“We’re a radial city, like a bike wheel,” she says.  The city’s restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs jut out like spokes from its riverfront city centre. Throngs of students gravitate towards any one of the many beer houses and small breweries that form the city’s ‘Beermuda Triangle’. Excited clubbers flock towards Motion, voted UK’s best large club, while hungry patrons tuck into steak and cocktails from the basement of The Ox.

First appointed as Bristol’s Night Time Economy Advisor in April 2021, Heath is one of a new type of ‘shadow mayor’ emerging in cities around the world. Defenders of the dark, custodians of the night, the role comes under many names. Manchester and London have night czars, while Amsterdam has a Nacht Burgemeester (translation: ‘night mayor’). But they all share one central purpose, which is to serve as chief advocate, policymaker and point-of-contact for a city after dark.

It is far from an insignificant job. Afterall, cities don’t close when mayors sign out of their email accounts and city council offices turn their lights off. About 30 percent of Bristol’s total economy operates between 6pm and 6am, Heath says, encompassing some 1120 premises and 91,500 jobs.

Heath has lived and bled Bristol nightlife from a young age. She used to run a record label, helped set up a community festival called Brisfest to celebrate Bristol’s nightlife culture and spent 10 years distributing flyers and posters to promote events in the city when she owned the advertising company Don’t Panic. So when this role came about, it seemed too good to be true. “This is a job for life for me,” Heath says, “I just love life in Bristol.”

When she first started her role, Heath promised to lead Bristol nightlife’s post-pandemic recovery and has stuck to her word so far, with £45.5 million being spent using Visa cards between 6pm and 6am in the first half of 2022, of which two-thirds was by people going for a night out to socialise. But the nighttime economy is not only bars and clubs.

“It’s anti-social behaviour and students falling out of kebab shops at 3am,” she says, “it’s also late-night transportation, 24-hour call centres, late-night retail and a huge portion of the health and social care [sector].”

Heath believes that many of the services and provisions out there right now neglect those who work at night, some 30% of Bristol jobs. This is something as a nighttime advisor that she’d like to change. She is looking to introduce a wellbeing and mental health program for those working in nighttime hospitality, for example. “If you regularly finish at 6am, you’re not going to get up at 8am to ring the GP and book an appointment,” she says.

Pioneering new approaches against drink-spiking
She is also passionate about safety and is most proud of her anti-spiking initiative, the first of its kind in the UK. Focused on catching the culprit, or stopping them in the first place, she has introduced testing behind 157 bars, clubs and pubs in Bristol, and is strengthening relationships with police to help with safety and early evidence-gathering. “I’ve seen the effects of drink spiking way too often,” she says, “and I know how difficult it has been to crack.”

Key to the approach has been to understand the complexity of the issue, fault for which is too often laid with the victim.
Take the example of someone wishing to smoke in a venue’s garden. The public health advice to guard your drink is confused by licensing laws that require drinks be left inside. While she’s working with venues to help them change their licence, she is also mindful that ultimate blame sits fairly and squarely with the perpetrators.  
“We want to make it about catching the people that are doing it, and letting the audiences and our patrons know that we are trained and have a plan in place to tackle this scourge on nightlife.”
The approach is attracting national and international attention, with Heath in conversation with the UK Home Office and national policing groups, and sharing information via WhatsApp groups with night mayors in countless other countries.
“Most of the advice when people are turning to drink spiking they're looking at Bristol.”

The next few years look like challenging ones for the sector. Hospitality businesses already under pressure from Covid-19 and Brexit driving out large parts of their workforce are now feeling the brunt of skyrocketing energy prices and a recession. But it’s a sector to be celebrated and protected, says Heath. “We hold people’s social lives in our hands and we make sure that the city has spaces to come together,” she adds, “and our job as nighttime advisors is to look after that workforce.”

The recipe for Bristol’s nightlife

  • 1,127 nighttime premises
  • 39 music venues & nightclubs
  • 784 hospitality venues
  • 5 theatres                  
  • 91,620 employees
  • 30% of Bristol jobs.
  • 52 hotels
  • 13 breweries
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