Licensing bosses have been accused of putting the brakes on Preston’s night-time economy by calling time on late-night drinking.
Venues in a city centre “red zone” claim they are being hit by tougher regulations than premises outside it, as the authorities clamp down hard on violence and disorder.
Daniel Benson, co-owner of the Factory on Lords Walk, said: “The city centre as it stands is in bad shape. It seems the only people not in support of having a vibrant and busy nightlife are the police and I believe it’s down to them not having the resources to police the area.
“Not being able to open as we wanted has had an effect on the amount of jobs we initially had planned to offer people from 15 down to four full-time staff.”
But Lancashire Police and Preston City Council said today a dramatic fall in crime figures in the main trouble spots is proof the hard-line licensing policy is working. Ch Insp Nick Emmett said: “The policy does not prevent applications but shifts the burden of proof to the applicant to demonstrate why their application will not adversely affect crime and disorder.”
The red zone, bordered by Ringway and Glovers Court, was introduced by the authorities after an alarming rise in offences in flashpoints like Church Street.
New pubs and clubs applying to open in the zone must now demonstrate their business will not add to crime and disorder - and it could also affect existing premises renewing their permits.
Mr Benson says he hit problems when the club applied to Preston Council to extend the venue’s drinking licence from 1am to 3am on weeknights and 3am to 4am at weekends.
Mr Benson, who also operates clubs in Manchester, said: “When we took over the Frog and Bucket (premises), we approached the police and made them aware of our plans to extend our hours. This would allow us to open more, thus bringing people into the city and creating jobs.
“We suggested to the police we would apply for a Temporary Events Notice for four weekends to demonstrate we are good operators and how we would manage the venue 3am until 4am. But they objected to this on the grounds of crime and disorder.
“We have worked all over the North West and have never had any issues with the police and always had a good relationship with them wherever we have worked.”
He added: “The town centre as it stands is in bad shape. It seems the only people not in support of having a vibrant and busy nightlife are the police and I believe it’s down to them not having the resources to police the area. Not being able to open as we wanted has had an effect on the amount of jobs we initially had planned to offer people, from 15 down to four full-time staff.
“We come from a city where the police and council realise the importance of the night-time economy and the need for later opening hours.
“Police deal with problem venues individually and not apply blanket bans.”
In the first year of the “red zone” being introduced, around 200 offences were reported in Preston’s most popular pubs. But now the crime toll is falling.
“I’m fully in support of the red zone,” said city centre Coun Drew Gale. “It appears to be working because, from what I know, crime is down in the area.
“I think it’s important for licensees and businesses to liaise with the police because they know how to keep our night-time visitors safe.
“All the businesses I have encountered have been on board with the application process.”
Tony Gorbet, regional director for the Luminar Group, which runs Cameo & Vinyl in Market Place, inside the “red zone”, also said he was behind the measures.
He said: “The cumulative impact zone is there to protect the existing business in the area and to protect the environment in the zone from disorder. What it does imply is that there are enough late night licences in the area and that the council and the police don’t want to see more licences that could bring crime and disorder with them.
“I understand it is difficult for individuals to get new licences, but we’ve all got to abide by it.
“As for the impact on bringing new business into the area, the more that are introduced, the harder it becomes for everybody – the cake doesn’t get bigger, the slices just get smaller.”
But musician Jim Berry, who makes use of Preston’s many live music venues, said having a designated “zone” isn’t looking at the wider issue.
He said: “It should be more selective rather than having a zone. Individuals should be spoken to and made to sort their problems out.
“It’s like saying raising the cost of alcohol will stop binge drinking, but that’s not tackling the issue, really.”
Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, added: “We should be mindful that this type of licencing restriction could have a negative effect on businesses and jeopardise their viability, particularly independent small businesses with marginal profits in this economic climate.
“There needs to be a real engagement with city centre businesses prior to any implementation.
“There is a real opportunity to use existing partnership structures such as Purple Flag and BID Preston to facilitate such discussions.”
Ch Insp Nick Emmett, of Lancashire Police, said: “It is nationally recognised that excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to incidents of crime and disorder. This is particularly prevalent where there are large numbers of licensed premises operating within a small area.
“ The policy does not prevent applications, but shifts the burden of proof to the applicant to demonstrate why their application will not adversely impact upon crime and disorder.
“The police support this and consider that it has been effective in ensuring people can continue to enjoy a safe night out in the city of Preston.”