Piss-artists and planning policies

Neil at the Brighton Regency Labour Party blog makes some interesting points on the subject of the relaxation of licencing laws and the ‘curse’ of ‘binge drinking’, questioning the current received wisdom that longer opening hours will inevitably lead to more problems.

While he makes some good points he, like the majority of commentators, seems to miss a key factor in the whole equation of copious-quantities-of-alcohol + young-people = breakdown-in-social-order and that’s the contribution made to the problem by the development of large-scale ‘entertainment districts’ in larger towns and cities and the demise of the local pub.

Binge drinking, alcohol-fueled violence and political concerns about its consequences are nothing new at all in Britain – check the history books for everything from the ‘rake’s clubs’ of the 18th Century, the most notorious of which was the Hellfire Club to the gin palaces which were a feature of city life, especially in the poor quarters of London, throughout most the 18th and 19th centuries.

This is not a new problem at all.

What is new, as I alluded to a couple of paragrpahs ago, is the development of large-scale ‘entertainments districts’ in many towns and cities – about 15-16 years ago I worked in a night club in Birmingham City Centre for just short of 12 months while I was at university – the classic student weekend job routine.

At that time, where I worked was pretty much what amounted to the main ‘entertainment district’ in the city – 3-4 bars, the same number of nightclubs, a casino and few pretty ropey fast-food restaurants.

That was the basic pattern of things in those days, pubs and club dotted around the city centre in very small clusters, limiting the number of people you’d find in any one area.

Today we have Broad Street – near enough a mile long drag of pubs, clubs and restaurants with odd hotel here and there – Birmingham’s premier Saturday night money pit which drags in people from across the whole city, gets them utterly shit-faced and then dumps them on out on the street together en masse.

You’ll find pretty much the same thing in any decent-sized town whereever you go, one or maybe two streets which, over the last ten years or so, has been turned over almost exclusively to the pursuit of the noble art a relieving young people of the money in return for copious quantities of alcohol and a free ride to A&E at the end of the night – and all with the connivance of the entertainment’s industry and local councils who were concerned only with maximising the amount of money sloshing around the ‘local economy’ on a Saturday night without any real thought for the consequences. In some places, like Birmingham, the council has even had ‘regeneration’ money from the government to set the whole thing up.

It’s not a difficult equation – take several thousand people, get them pissed out of their faces and then put them all in the same location and you’re guaranteed to have public order problems.

What did these people expect?

I’m not saying this is the only cause of such problems but it is one factor in this whole situation which seems to be largely ignored – its all very well seeing councillors popping up on the TV to complain that young people out on Saturday night in the centre of town are acting with all the decorum of Attila the Hun and lecturing bar owners on how they should shoulder some of the burden of the increased costs of policing and take responsibility for their customer’s behaviour, but lets not forget whose planning policies created these districts in the first place.

There’s more to this whole situation that simply bad behaviour by young people or too-liberal licencing laws which is why we shouldn’t allow this current debate to be used a cop out by those who’ve also played their part in creating this situation.

  • You are right about the emergence of town centre ‘entertainment areas’ and how they have contributed to binge drinking largely because of the local council’s greed to earn a fast buck. But these places largely already have late licences.

    Extending this to all pubs means drinkers might be lured away from these binge drinking centres to more sedate pubs with more seating and the chance for a relaxed chat over a pint. It would also mean more dispersal of people rather than concentration of trouble spots.

    If the police and councils use their new powers to close troubled pubs, then the pubs will soon get their act together and make their establishments less oriented towards ‘speed drinking’.

  • Up here in Crawley we have had the same thing. When applications (planning or licensing) for anything away from the high street come up the police always object.

    They had a stated policy to prefer all entertainment in one place to make policing easier. It did not occur to them that spreading the ‘fun’ might reduce the need for policing.

    I’m really interested to see how it all pans out. The late licensing debate has plausible arguments from either side but no proof. Using examples from other countries with different cultures and circumstances is no use.

    I think its one of those things where the impact cannot be predicted: you have to try it and see what happens. If it really does make things worse, then maybe think again, but it has to be worth trying.

  • Unity

    I agree with both of you.

    If you look at your local area you can pretty identify which pubs are going to be the one’s to cause problems as they’re largely the one’s which already have a bad reputation.

    When to comes to the landlords of old-style ‘locals’ things are likely to be very different – I know I were running such a pub I’d be tempted to get a late licence but not make anything of it nor open the pub, officially, any later than usual – just use the late licence to cover the traditional ‘lock-in’ with the regulars.

    There needs to be practical solutions to the problems of binge drinking which start with the return of pub gaffers saying to their punters ‘Sorry, but I think you’ve had enough’.

  • Lee

    I Return from Germany and Spain regularly, where we wander home after a few drinks as the sky becomes lighter and the birds twitter.

    A far cry from Broad St, Birmingham you mention above (my local drinking area). As you say the authorities treat us like cattle.

    The police have spoken to the doormen now, and you cannot enter any place after 12.30 midnight. It’s absolutely true! You have to go home because the police do not want everyone dumped on the street at 2am.

    After 1am the cattle must form an orderly queue for the taxis, directed by the “tax marshalls”.

    We are apparently not able to conduct ourselves appropriately by this stage (all of us), requiring nanny state tactics.

    Birmingham and much of the UK is pants compared to the continent for moderate drinking fun.