When the running of nightspots is called into question the police step in. The Argus looks at what is being done to stop problem pubs Policing our night life Sussex Police have to step in when problem pubs, clubs and off-licences are caught selling alcohol to minors, fail to stop customers being attacked or where staff have been caught using class A drugs. Neil Vowles reports on how the force deals with problem premises – from getting pubs to install ID card scanners to closing them down – to curb the antisocial behaviour of trouble nightspots.
When Sussex Police called for a review of the licence of the Liquid Lounge and Light Bar in Worthing in November, the force labelled the venues in Chatsworth Road as the worst in the county.
A report detailing 37 serious crimes that occurred in and around the premises since April 2011 was followed by calls by the police for the premises’ licences to be revoked.
Fast forward two months and an understanding has been reached between the club’s management, council and police which will force the venues to shut for three weeks, introduce ID scanners and bring in shorter opening hours.
Some may consider the decision a reprieve for the owners but Sussex Police insist its decision to mediate is the best way to protect the public.
On average, Sussex Police call in around ten licence reviews a year when they believe a premise could be causing a threat to public safety, failing to prevent public nuisance, causing children to come to harm or because the venue has become a cause of crime and disorder.
Of the 12 most recent cases brought in the past 18 months or so, a pattern emerges of Sussex Police calling initially for the toughest penalties – revoking licences or long suspensions – before reaching a more moderate agreement following discussions with club management.
Jean Irving, Sussex Police’s licensing and public safety manager, said the force only called for a review once the working relationship with club or pub owners had completely broken down.
She said reviews were only sought after at least 12 months of working with problem premises without success.
She told The Argus she goes for the toughest penalties she believes she can get according to her legal advice, but she said the force is willing to work with club and pub owners who are prepared to make changes.
Lively night life
She added: “We don’t want to close down premises, I don’t want boarded up premises.
“I want a lively night life. We live on the coast and we want people to come down and enjoy their night but when people are getting hurt we will intervene and intervene big time.
“The impact on the night time economy is somewhere in my thinking but my primary concern is the safety of the public and not the viability of a business.
“It is not even one of the four considerations allowed in the Licensing Act.”
Worthing Borough Council licence committee member councillor Bob Smytherman said he would like to see licence reviews being called in earlier and more frequently before antisocial problems at pubs and clubs get out of hand.
He said: “I think the current system works well but I would like to see elected councillors respond when these premises are not being responsible on their patch and call for review quicker.
“In the case of Liquid Lounge, closing the club would have been a disaster for the night-time economy of Worthing because it’s the last substantial club in town where young people can go on a Friday and Saturday night.
“I don’t believe licensing committees should be about closing down premises, it’s about working with responsible management and staff to ensure their customers can get the best service they can provide.”
Another incentive for Sussex Police to come to a compromise rather than attempt to impose conditions upon the licence holders is the delay that any appeal to police action could have on needed remedies.
In the case of the Liquid Lounge, Sussex Police called in the review in November but the case was heard only in January and came into effect this week.
An appeal would have added months to the process.
Ms Irving said: “If a problem premises wants to challenge a licensing review decision, then it goes to a magistrates’ court and at the moment in Sussex the average time in getting to court is between four and five months.
“If we go through mediation, once they have gone through the three week appeal window, the new conditions will apply.
“In the case of Liquid Lounge, the hearing was in January and we would have been looking at June or July, right in the busy part of the year before the conditions took effect and we needed changes effective as soon as possible.”
Sussex Police point to a number of success stories to vindicate their softly, softly approach.
In September, the Slug and Lettuce in Chichester was called in for a review and agreed to a voluntary closure of its doors from 8pm on Friday and Saturday nights for three weeks as well as a series of improvements to security.
Following the review, Sussex Police say the number of incidents at the pub dropped significantly.
A similar tale of success can be told by the management at the Thursday Nightclub in Chichester which was ordered to take on new door staff and use improved CCTV and ID scanners to reduce incidents of serving drunk customers and violence on the premises in June 2011.
Police say the transformation has been so successful, the venue has since been allowed to successfully apply to extend its licence for an hour.
Councillor John Ridd, chairman of Chichester District Council’s licensing committee, said: “We have to depend upon the police to bring their concerns to us if a review needs to be called on a particular premises.
“We have a good working relationship with police, we depend on a night-time economy and it’s very much in everybody’s concern that there are places in the city for people to drink safely and to enjoy themselves.”
However, the force can also come down hard on management who refuse to take the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
The Va Va Voom bar in the Old Steine, Brighton, first came under review in January 2011 after reports of staff using class A drugs, serving minors and excessive drunkenness.
Despite a package of conditions being agreed, the club’s management failed to uphold its side of the bargain. A second review was called in December this year and the premises had its licence revoked this week.
Ms Irving said: “A few people criticised me for not going for revocation the first time.
“But we try to give people a second chance and by the time it comes up for review people have been given a second and a third chance.
“I have not had a single review where I have walked away dissatisfied with the outcome.”
The Va Va Voom bar is the only pub or club called in for review in Brighton and Hove over the past 18 months despite the city’s huge night-time economy and sometimes unfair reputation for boozy and antisocial revellers.
Ms Irving credits that success with the strong approach the force took on misbehaving premises in the city in 2005 when new licensing powers came into effect.
She said: “In Brighton, when the licensing act came in we called about a dozen emergency closures in Brighton.
“In the city, there are a lot of people who have been working in the industry for a long time and have seen what has happened in the past when we have taken drastic action.
“So when we have spoken to them to say you need to sort out this, this and this, then they have changed this, this and this because they want to be called into review.”
One of the conditions imposed by Sussex Police which is being credited with turning around problem premises is the use of ID scanners by door staff.
Sussex Police began encouraging the use of the machines in clubs and pubs about seven years ago but the earlier versions were quite basic and did not have the capacity to communicate with scanners in other premises.
More sophisticated scanners on the market can now check more than 300 different forms of ID to check for fraudulent proofs of identity and can communicate with machines at other premises to warn door staff about troublemakers who might have been barred from a different venue earlier in the night.
The machines also help police to identify any potential suspects to crimes committed in a venue by allowing access to a database of people allowed into the premises against names or descriptions supplied by victims.
The scanners have been credited with helping to track down suspects for a number of serious crimes including sexual assault in nightclubs.
Ms Irving said: “If I had my way, every single pub and club in Sussex would have one of them.
“It would send a message to people intent on causing a problem that they won’t get away with it.”
Licence Reviews called in by Sussex Police since June 2011
- Thursday Nightclub, Drayton Lane Chichester in June 2011
- Wheatsheaf Pub, Richmond Road, Worthing in October 2011 (second review)
- Appletree Pub, West Green Drive, Crawley in December 2011 Park Road News Convenience store, Park Road, Brighton in January 2012
- The Cricketers Pub, The Green, Southwick in March 2012
- Chameleon Nightclub, Albion Way, Horsham in May 2012
- Club Lush, Sudley Road, Bognor Regis in May 2012
- K & A News Convenience store in St. Georges Road, Brighton in September 2012
- Slug & Lettuce, Southgate, Chichester in September 2012
- Liquid Lounge & Light Bar, Chatsworth Road, Worthing in November 2012
- The Old Barn pub, Felpham Road, Felpham in December 2012
- Va Va Voom late night bar, Old Steine, Brighton in December 2012 (second review)
See the latest news headlines from The Argus:
- UPDATE: Motorist dies on A27 after 41-ton lorry overturns, crushing car
- BREAKING: Man fighting for life after nail bar fire is being treated as suspect
- Father told to walk four miles home in torrential rain with baby over £3 parking fee
- Man who collapsed and died in Brighton street named
- Sussex set to be hotter than Istanbul, Prague and San Marino this weekend