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How to solve Cardiff’s nightlife mess

When I left Cardiff eight years ago the city’s big capacity nightclubs were booming. Sprawling venue like Creation (now Oceana) and Liquid provided students with their fix of cheesy tunes during the week and welcomed locals at the weekend. They were hot, noisy and messy, but for an 18 year old living away from home for the first time an awful lot of fun.

Returning to Cardiff for a stag party this weekend, I found that the city’s nightlife had completely changed. The lower end of St Mary’s Street, where Liquid, Life and the Square kept me entertained during my student days is virtually abandoned, the buildings boarded up. And what was Evolution in Cardiff Bay has been turned into a health club.

It appears that Britain’s tastes have changed to the extent that we no longer want to party in mega clubs or large bars, but prefer smaller, more boutique venues. This, and the fact that with the credit crunch, high youth unemployment and tuition fee hikes for undergraduates, as a nation we are going out less, was said to have caused the collapse of Luminar Leisure, a major operator of nightclubs, last year.

But I think there are also other factors at play here. Leisure quarters in places like Cardiff have been allowed to grow too quickly. Extra space has been created for shops, bars and restaurants at a time when there isn’t the demand to keep everywhere supplied with adequate numbers of customers.

In Cardiff, the expansion of St David’s shopping centre has moved the city’s focus away from St Mary’s Street to new piazzas near the new shops. As restaurants and bars have opened in this trendy part of town, other areas have been left abandoned.

Clearly the planners got it wrong in Cardiff, as has been the case elsewhere in Britain, and completely mis-calculated demand for leisure space. The question now is what to do with all of the unsightly, boarded up buildings?

St Mary’s Street faces a conundrum because you have huge units lying empty which were designed as nightclubs. Liquid was in a windowless basement so can’t simply be converted into flats. The neighbouring Square has been an entertainment venue since Victorian time, the inscription on the splendid facade displaying the wording ‘the Philharmonic Hall Cardiff’.

There are some entrepreneurs though that are prepared to spend big sums of cash in bringing these places up to date and fit for use in the 21st century. Divided into smaller upmarket bars and venues where plays or concerts could be performed would be fine uses for these unsightly, closed up properties.

But police object to more late night drinks licenses being given out. On the one hand, you can see where they are coming from – Cardiff city centre’s night life seems more chaotic than when I left university eight years ago. This weekend wherever we went we kept bumping into other drunken stag parties, something that not all Cardiff residents seem happy about.

On the other hand, however, you can’t simply have these buildings lying empty, especially as this is one of the first stretches that people see as they arrive at Cardiff Central train station. So a compromise needs to be reached to ensure that entertainment provision in the Welsh capital that matches the needs of party-goers in 2012 and beyond, while at the same time respecting the wishes of others who want some peace and quiet. All eyes will be on Cardiff to get it right and ensure that character buildings aren’t left to rot.

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