Trigger warning: this article contains references to spiking.
I first became aware of who Sacha Lord was over Twitter. My curiosity was struck when I noticed he would tweet out updates of high-potency MDMA pills, with pictures attached. A further dive into his social media evidenced that he’s not afraid to call out outdated approaches and encourage common sense practices not only to drug policy but across the board.
Sacha Lord is the Night-time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester and the co-founder of Parklife Festival and The Warehouse Project, also sometimes referred to as the Night Czar, or even Night Mayor. Although these are nicknames Sacha himself isn’t fond of as he jokes, “I am a nightmare to some people but [Night Mayor] just didn’t flow”.
Immediately, Sacha is a laugh, telling us about a recent interview at Freight Island where he had to read out troll tweets he’d been sent. As a first interview of mine, I was relaxed by how very conversational Sacha was from the get-go.
Having started off at the infamous Haçienda, next year Sacha will have been promoting events in Manchester for 30 years. He spoke of how he has “done everything that I see other people do now, whether it’s handing out flyers or putting up posters or running nights… I’ve gone through that and have the experience to help people.”
Sacha largely attributes his current advisor role to Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester. Sacha asserts that, “I’ve seen so many things that have been done wrong throughout the years” in the city’s nightlife. It was thanks to this lived experience that, in 2018, the Mayor was keen to work together and created this advisory role for the combined authority.
Expanding on what has needed to improve over the years in terms of the city’s nightlife, Sacha explained, “[that’s] why we’re having a discussion regarding Reclaim the Night.”
Spiking and Reclaim the Night
We began the discussion with a focus on last October’s nationwide club boycotts. Sacha attributed to mainstream media attention on the conversation largely to, “girls and women of Manchester University… on a Wednesday boycotting nightclubs.”
Sacha detailed that for the first time in his lifetime, last year “the conversation was finally put at the top of the agenda”. With BBC, Sky and ITV covering these protests against spiking, including a march led by students and Exec Officers here in Manchester, Sacha explained how he was relieved to see the long overdue coverage that’s so vital to increasing awareness.
He expressed admiration for the movement: “For many years people have spoken about [spiking], typed about it, posted about it, but your generation did something about it”. Hence, why he states “it’s so key next week that those same people take to the streets” at Reclaim the Night on November 30.
Sacha seemed conscious of how it might seem “patronising” for him “as a 50-year-old male” to speak on these topics relating to gender-based violence and emphasised the importance of men such as himself calling out their peers. He has generously offered to donate £10k financial contribution to the Students’ Union’s Reclaim the Night campaign.
Although he admits he isn’t personally aware of which charities the campaign is supporting this year, he explains that he is in a position to make a financial contribution but feels he is in no position to dictate where our execs decide to donate the money.
This donation will be directed towards Manchester Rape Crisis and Galop.
I then asked Sacha about what his work does to tackle to main campaign aim of this year’s Reclaim, which is encouraging a ‘Speak Up’ culture. He explained why he thinks Manchester is taking a slightly different approach to other cities. He and Burnham were keen to use drink spiking caps as a temporary measure but wanted to engage in more active long-term work to call out men and boys.
Sacha detailed a video, released by the combined authority 11 months ago, called (hashtag)IsThisOk? With 12 million views, the video shows women being catcalled, touched, and harassed whilst going about their day in typical settings. Sacha described how this campaign video, “shone a light on these big issues.” Whether it’s a park, a bus stop or a nightclub, Sacha asserted that men and boys need to take more accountability for their complicity and acknowledge “we are the issue”
Other cities have followed suit, with the London Mayor launching a similar Have A Word campaign video.
Sacha says he does feel like the support in place for those to speak up has shifted slightly, but “it’s certainly nowhere near where it needs to be”.
Circling back to the height of spiking coverage last November, a common feeling amongst students is that this moment in the spotlight was something of a trend. I ask Sacha if he feels this moment of virality has caused the conversation to lose momentum since.
“Look we all know how media works and it sometimes feels like they’re jumping from hot topic to hot topic. Yes, I think at the time it was all over the media and I think in other cities conversation has moved on.” However, Sacha believes that Manchester, Bristol, and Nottingham are still keeping up the momentum.
The Warehouse Project was, in fact, the first nightclub in the UK to work with paramedics and buy spiking test kits. Sacha explains how he saw this as a common sense approach, given the kits only cost £2 each. 28 tests were used out of roughly 140,000 people last Warehouse season, so stocking a small amount in each business is certainly the way forward.
“If you own a venue that has a capacity of 300/400 people, and you’re not going to spend £20-40 on some kits annually, you don’t deserve a license. You really don’t.”
Sacha detailed that at the end of this year 1/3 of nightclubs will have shut down compared to before the pandemic. He was certain, “your generation are going to start voting with your feet to those places that feel safer.”
In terms of Sacha’s other work to ensure safety on a night out, he’s started introducing Safety Havens. This measure had begun pre-Covid in Wigan, not specific to spiking but rather a general safe space, but certainly helps all round. He detailed these measures consist of a St John’s Ambulance presence on the high streets. People who go out are able to charge their phone, grab a cup of tea if they’re anxious, hang out while they look for lost friends, or have a safe space after instances of spiking.
Sacha explained that these are being “dotted across Manchester, and are something we’re going to start to roll out again.” Particularly given there are fewer police and NHS staff, a safer high street throughout the city presence could keep the conversation going.
I also asked about the Anti-Spiking Partnership with Andy Burnham, which consisted of our Union Officers and students also. Sacha talked about how, “ten years ago there was a real king of us and them… you had the authorities one side and the students and people going out on the other.”
He explained how he’s happy to see more of a partnership going on, asking me personally if I feel there’s more of a partnership between these two forces now, which I largely do. While Sacha does not attend meetings of the Anti-Spiking Partnership anymore, he believes these meetings still go ahead with students and Execs.
I then asked about what measures are in place for students to get home safely from town, particularly given how crucial students are to keeping the industry functioning as workers. Sacha is working closely with UNITE on this, as he accepted “one of our biggest Achilles heels in Greater Manchester is we don’t have great transport at night time.” However, he does hope this will change in 2024.
It’s for this reason that Sacha thinks, “as an operator… you have to be responsible for getting the staff home”. Detailing further how venues must at least let staff wait for taxis inside as a bare minimum.
I asked Sacha if he feels students will be priced out of the nightlife scene. Given our own SU survey of 5000 students indicated that 63% of the student body are anxious about affording socialising during the cost of living crisis.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it, everybody is going to feel the pinch.”
Sacha detailed how with rising costs young people are more inclined to wait for big tickets like big weekends and festivals. “I think students are holding back now rather than going out every night, they’re waiting for big moments,” acknowledging he’s lucky that Warehouse is so often the event people will save and wait for.
After joking with me that he knew the Glastonbury line-up, he explained they’re going to take another look at food prices onsite at Parklife this year. Although these prices are out of organisers’ hands, typically, his team are going to look at introducing caps. Sacha was aware that students can often feel as though “11 quid of a pizza is an absolute rip-off” on top of already pricy tickets.
The Warehouse Project and Parklife have worked with Mandrake Lab and the Loop respectively. Both provide large-scale drug testing services and a harm reduction presence at the events. Sacha himself has even tweeted out photos of high-potency MDMA pills in circulation.
“Any operator who has a night-time venue. If they sit in this chair and say to you, we never have drugs in this venue. Well, they’re either stupid or they’re lying.”
Sacha’s philosophy is that you’re never going to stop drugs from getting into your event. He explained that, particularly given Parklife and Warehouse are held in a field and a disused railway station, “if they can’t stop drugs getting into a category-A prison like Strangeways, how are we supposed to stop it. The simple answer is you can’t.”
You need to direct people to the safest way to do it, Sacha says he’s lucky, “in this city the police understand the philosophy”. If something is deemed dangerous by Mandrake, Sacha gets a WhatsApp notification which he then sometimes tweets out. He asserts, “I’m not scared of saying there’s a pink tablet that looks like Donald Trump with extremely high levels”. It might reach a million people across the UK, hence people need to “stop hiding behind talking about it. It’s backwards!”
Politics and the Labour Party
Upon asking about if a bid for mayor is pending, a straight no came from Sacha. The question is actually starting to annoy him. He insists, “Andy Burnham’s the best mayor we could possibly have”.
I then asked Sacha about his recent commitment to the Labour Party, as a member. He acknowledged that, “it would’ve been better for me to stay sat on the fence… but I had to wear my heart on my sleeve”.
“I had to support the Labour Party. I honestly believe, at this moment in time, the Labour Party are the future of the UK.”
He went on to say he’s sick and embarrassed by what’s happened in this country over the years, calling it “a global embarrassment”. You may not agree with everything Labour’s ever said but certainly, “for the night time economy, they are absolutely the right party to take us through this”. Attributing this stance to conversations he’s been having behind the scenes with politicians.
“Because I’m in this position, I owe it to give back to the city. We’re supposed to be a 24-hour party city, I don’t think we are. But I think I can certainly try to make it happen.”
Sacha, unfortunately, wouldn’t tease the Parklife lineup at the end of the interview, a bit of a cheeky ask from me. He will be joining students for the Reclaim the Night march on November 30.