What You Can Get Away With » Thoughts on the night-time economy, in Colchester and elsewhere

I spent several cold hours out in Colchester last Saturday night as part of the Castle Ward night of action. Since I’ve been a councillor, I’ve been out in the town centre on Friday and Saturday nights several times to see what happens there, and I know that the issue of the night-time economy is something that generates lots of opinions in lots of different quarters, so here’s a few of my thoughts on it.

These are based mainly on my experience and knowledge of Colchester and they’re not intended to be definitive pronouncements – I’d welcome any comments or discussion people want to add in the comments. There’s a whole lot of other issues tied up in the night-time economy, but I can’t going into full detail on everything, because this is a blog post and not a book!

Complaints about what people get up to when they’re out drinking and having fun are nothing new. Looking back through history shows us many examples, be it licensing laws being introduced to stop people drinking for too long and damaging war production during the First World War, the temperance movement or Hogarth’s depiction of Gin Lane, to name but a few. Human beings like to drink alcoholic drinks, and that drinking is often part of social interaction. This is an issue that’s existed throughout history, though that does not mean that the complaints we hear about the effects of the current drinking culture are invalid.

The general problems and complaints that come from the night time economy in Colchester are that:

  • It causes crime, particularly violent crime
  • It creates an unwelcome atmosphere in the town that puts people off from going there for reasons other than drinking
  • It generates noise, from venues and individuals, that disturbs residents in and close to the town centre – and further afield, noise from people heading at the end of the night disturbs people sleeping
  • It creates lots of behaviour, such as public urination or vomiting, that’s not pleasant to see or clean up
  • It generates lots of litter and minor damage that has to be cleaned and cleared before the morning
  • It costs a lot for the services (police, health, council etc) that have to deal with it
  • Of course, none of these problems are separate, and lots of issues interlink some or all of them together.

    One key factor that’s changed in the night-time economy in recent years is that there’s no longer the distinction between pubs and clubs that there used to be. The situation used to be relatively simple – pubs were open until 11pm on most nights, and when they shut people either went home or went on to a nightclub, which would be open until later (usually 2am). The 2003 Licensing Act radically changed all that (though the distinction had been slipping before then) by allowing much later licensing hours for pubs and bars. Whereas before the situation would have been that a town would have had a large number of pubs feeding into a small number of post-11pm clubs, now there was a much more diverse offering. Increased competition meant that bars and clubs were now in the same market, and the distinction between them became hard to tell at points.

    Which leads us to the situation we have in Colchester at present. The main part of the night-time economy runs along several streets that make up a scythe-like shape: Crouch Street, Head Street and the top of St John’s Street, High Street, Queen Street and St Botolph’s Street. There are some venues outside this area that feed into the night-time economy, but these are the main locations. That order’s also the way things progress through the night, with one of the main congestion points being St Botolph’s Street at 3am.

    One important thing to remember is that almost everyone who goes out into any town on a Saturday night is merely looking to have a good time, and the trouble that gets caused is incidental to that, not an integral part. As with so many thins in life, it’s the ignorant actions of a tiny minority that are reflected back on the whole. While I was out with police on Saturday night, I did see some violence, but it was sporadic and localised, not widespread and endemic as some reporting would make you believe. However, people’s perception is that the town centre at night is unsafe and unwelcoming, regardless of what the statistics might say.

    The key balance that needs to be struck is enabling people to go out and have a good time, while limiting or removing the problems and costs this causes for other people. Of course, how to do that is the big question. The problem is that there’s no one simple magic bullet that will solve all the problems (or, at least, will solve them without creating lots of new ones) and a whole raft of things need to be tried to see what effect they have. A couple of years ago, I chaired a Council group looking at the night-time economy in Colchester, and we produced a whole series of recommendations (see also here) for ways to improve the situation. Many of those are being implemented, though obviously there are issues for the Council in finding the money to be able to follow them to their full extent.

    However, there are some other things that I think need looking at in the light of recent experience and further changes in the way the night-time economy works. For instance, I’m informed that there’s now much more ‘pre-loading’ (drinking at home before going out) occurring, which is meaning the police and door staff are having to deal with a lot more people turning up in the town centre later in the evening already drunk. This obviously causes different issues to dealing with people who’ve been in the town all evening, especially in identifying people who might cause issues. The issues I think need looking at are:

    Enforcement: This isn’t about being draconian, but about making sure that we deal with the regulations that are already in place. There are lots of little breaches of licensing regulations that go on, and we need to be stricter at making sure venues keep in line. The problem comes that if one starts stretching the rules and getting away with it, others are almost compelled to follow by commercial necessity.

    One issue that does get raised often is that it is illegal to serve alcohol to someone already drunk, however that’s a very difficult law to enforce (consider the amount of evidence needed to prove it, and then add in that it’s easy for someone relatively sober to buy a round for people who are drunk). However, work does need to be done – for health reasons, if nothing else – to find ways that can help limit this from happening.

    Diversity: One of the problems I’ve seen in many towns at night is that drinking and clubbing becomes a monoculture. This means that there’s no other people around to provide a contrast or a control to the behaviour that happens. If everyone around you is drunk or has been out drinking, then your behaviour is going to be different than when you’ve got a lot of other people around who’ve been doing different things. The problem, of course, is how do you get a wider range of people into town at night? One thing in Colchester’s favour here is a strong live music scene which brings a wider range of people to the town centre, and things like that need encouraging.

    Noise: One memorable sight from Saturday night was a bar where the music (especially the bass) was so loud inside the walls were vibrating. Potential structural issues and hearing damage aside, one of the main complaints from the night-time economy is noise, both leakage from the venues (one of the issues for a town centre with residents within and very close by) and people heading home. That – and related littering along the routes home – is one of the issues that actually causes a lot of the negative feeling towards the night-time economy. A lot of people don’t mind what other people do, until it directly affects them and wakes them up at 3am, or leaves a half-eaten kebab in their front garden.

    We need to find ways to reduce the amount of noise coming out of venues – perhaps considering how we can tackle real and potential noise leakage through planning and licensing – as well as finding ways to get people to be more responsible in their behaviour on the way home.

    People on the ground: One of the key facts of the night of action last week was having a lot of people working in different roles. I’m still waiting to see the statistics from the night, but compared to the other times I’ve been out there on weekends after dark, it was clearly noticeable how many more police there were on the streets, as well as from other organisations and agencies. Even if we can’t match the resources that were put in on Saturday night, we need to find ways to have more people out there at night, not just to enforce, but to help – the SOS Bus volunteers and the Street Pastors do great work in nipping problems in the bud.

    What we need to do is identify funding not just for police officers and licensing officers, but to support initiatives like this. Sadly, in the way it’s set up, it doesn’t look like the government’s Late Night Levy will achieve this – it won’t raise much money, what it does raise goes predominantly to a central pot for the county rather than being kept in the borough, and there’s no subtlety in how it gets applied.

    Timing: One thing we’ve been working to do in recent months is trying to hold back closing hours for venues to 3am, and not allow it to start creeping later and later into the morning. However, that does cause issues in itself as towards the end of the night, people flock towards the venues that are open the latest, and this causes problems by having a lot of people cramped into St Botolph’s Street at the end of the night. Should we be looking to roll hours back so everywhere finishes at roughly the same time, or might the alternative of stretching hours until later to allow a more gradual dispersal a good idea? (Or would that just leave to everyone leaving at 4am/6am/whenever, rather than 3?)

    Like I said, these are just some rough and random thoughts, and I’d appreciate reactions and comments – especially if you’ve managed to read through the whole thing!

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    3 comments untill now

    1. Timing is a red herring. Aus has very strict rules on enforcement, noise and policing – and they work very well – but ultimately people will time themselves out, and time rules only lead to taxi fights. If the people who are still awake at 6 are still in the club at 8, as long as it’s properly soundproofed, does that really matter?

      (I’d also recommend the legalisation of MDMA, because absolutely every study into club trouble has shown the higher the % of MDMA users, the lower the trouble, but I recognise this probably isn’t appropriate for a member of the Licensing Committee to raise. Wish it were.)

    2. As a previous member of the Pubwatch committee and previous manager of a few bars in town, it’s refreshing to see someone from the council taking a balanced look at the problem rather than demonising licensees who are, for the most part, trying to make a living in a responsible way.

      I have a great deal of respect for the Environmental & Protective Service guys that I worked with a couple of years ago, but they were as frustrated as I was at the toothlessness of Pubwatch and local authorities when it came to licensees. We can speak fairly freely now of one of the worst offenders, now that it has gone out of business. Month after month I and many other members of Pubwatch complained about the conduct of Route Nightclub (Queen St.) and yet they continued to trade with prices well below a responsible level and they continued to receive extensions on their license for nights that promoted the low prices or all you can drink events.

      These licenses were being granted at the same time I was working for another venue that was having trouble securing moderate extensions for evenings that involved no price slashing. My venues also had incredibly low levels of incidents of violence and I know for a fact our 2 police call outs in as many years was well below the level of any establishment on Queen Street.

      The answer to the problem is in better communication with good licensees. The public are not alone in feeling frustrated by the behaviour of irresponsible venues, other licensees have to see their trade dragged through the mud and have their customers lured away by irresponsible pricing. Whilst Steve Swain was always present at Pubwatch meetings, where was his support from higher up? If this council view this as such an important issue, the least they could do is come down from on high and listen to the views of those on the front line.

      Ultimately any good licensee knows that serving drunk people is not in their ultimate interest, extreme drinks promotions are not in their interest and antisocial levels of noise aren’t in their interest either. If persistent offenders remain unpunished for years on end and continue to draw away trade from those playing by the rules, you soon develop ill feeling between the venues and the council, and I have seen that happen on many an occasion.

      The closing time debate has been raging on from well before my time behind a bar. Arguments have been made for:

      - reducing the number of venues open late and focussing them in one area to make containment easier for the police (a strategy that failed spectacularly and left Queen Street as a no go/war zone between 2.30 and 4.00 Friday, Saturday and Sunday on weekends)

      - Stretching out openings times to discourage large groups of people taking to the streets at once (a strategy that enables drinking for longer, moves antisocial behaviour later and makes flash points less predictable)

      - closing all pubs and bars at around 12 and licensing a few big clubs around the town (a strategy that would damage the diversity of venues available and hand money straight to large club chains and away from the town)

      The list of ill thought out suggestions goes on. The current situation is a horrible mash of all of them, leaving Queen Street and one particular venue the last refuge for those looking for one last drink.

      Here’s a bold idea – consult local licensees and ask their opinions on the strategy for the town. Once you’ve adjusted responses for self interest, you may well end up with a good solution to the problem. Perhaps the results could be weighted to account for the number of police call outs to the venue/ Pubwatch attendance/ license breaches.

      An evening wandering around the town is nothing compared to the combined experience of the responsible licensees that see the nighttime economy every day, week and month.

    3. Gary – thanks for the comments, but just to clarify, I’ve done more than just ‘an evening wandering around the town’. This was the latest night I’ve spent there of many since I’ve been a councillor (standing around in the Dutch Quarter on a cold night checking noise from a premises was a particular facourite…) and before.

      However, from discussions we had on Saturday night, councillors will be going to Pubwatch meetings now, and I know the police have taken much more interest in opposing license applications (especially TENs for after 3am).