Last Wednesday (yes, I’m a bit behind with the news!) there was a front page story in the Gloucester Citizen, continued on page 5, headlined (in big red letters) “Late Licence Crime Surge“. The sub-heading goes on to implicate the city’s late night eateries: “Takeaway Violence is Soaring”.
And, as you read the detail, things do indeed look pretty bleak: since the introduction of the 24-hour licensing laws in 2005, crime in the city has doubled from 1,753 incidents per year to 3,827. However, I am always wary of such “facts” and statistics – as ever they raise more questions than answers.
So ideally I want more information, but let’s start with what we have. Across the four gate streets this gives a 118% increase in incidents over the period. Not good. The statistics are further broken down to single out Eastgate Street, where crime has risen from 867 incidents to 2,550 incidents: a rise of 194%. A bit of simple (even for me) maths reveals that incidents in the other three gate streets rose by 391, a 44% increase. Still pretty shocking, but not so bad in comparison.
The obvious question that springs into my head whenever I read such statistics is how do they fit in with overall figures – how many people are there in Gloucester over the weekend now compared with in 2005? If there are 118% more then there is no per-capita increase in crime and Gloucester is benefiting from a booming night economy, so perhaps we should complain less.
I don’t think that is probably the case though, but I suspect that the number of people in Eastgate Street has increased significantly – I’ll come back to that later.
The next question that I have is one of causality. It may be true that the increase in crime incidents has occurred concurrently with the introduction of 24-hour licensing, but it does not necessarily follow that one is caused by the other.
The suggestion, I guess, is that now that people can drink for longer they drink more. Then when they finally pile out of the pubs and clubs into the many eateries in the area, drunken tempers fray and trouble ensues. The answer, the article seems to suggest, is to make the nightclubs all shut at 2:30am and reduce the number of takeaways.
This seems a bit crazy: they are suggesting concentrating the number of people on the street to a smaller time window and make them queue longer for food at fewer outlets. Surely the sensible thing to do is to spread out the time at which people spill out onto the streets as much as possible and provide more eateries, but more widely dispersed.
So, if I’m not willing to assume that the problem is necessarily entirely the fault of 24-hour licensing, let’s think about what else has changed over the period.
One thing that I would suggest has changed is the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets 24-hours per day. If you head into town at the weekend you will undoubtedly find many drunk people, but many of them get that way by ‘pre-loading’ on cheap alcohol before going out. Good for your budget, bad for sensible drinking.
Another major factor is the creation of the ‘Eastgate Strip’: the area of Gloucester from Boots corner to Barton Street, which has been turned into the night-time destination for the 18 to 24-year old party goer. It is a haven for stag-dos, hen nights and general drunken debauchery. All of the pubs have been turned into ‘disco pubs’, with loud music, dim lighting and unnaturally brightly coloured drinks. It is also the location of Gloucester’s only two night clubs.
This state of affairs may have came about as the result of the move to 24-hour licensing, but it is not the fault of 24-hour licensing: it is the result, presumably, of some town planning decision.
In the old days, 18 to 24-year olds didn’t have their own ‘ghetto’ – sure they had their preferred pubs, but they were spread out across the city. They were forced to mingle, at least to some degree, with different, hopefully more mature, wiser elements of the community. This made the city as a whole more lively and vibrant at night rather than concentrating all the activity in one small corner. It also tended to be more self-policing: if some 20-year old kicked off there was usually someone bigger and older to give him a smack and tell him to stop being such a twat, without the need for police intervention.
Today Eastgate Street is crawling with police: a minimum of seven officers on the streets at weekends according to Chief Inspector Richard Burge. There are also bouncers on the doors of all of the pubs and clubs with a ‘zero tolerance policy’. I had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of one of these bouncers one Saturday night when I was visiting the Eastgate pubs as part of my research for The Story of Gloucester’s Pubs. I was threatened, intimidated, evicted and then patronised by a bloke the size of an outhouse with an IQ in single digits who was young enough to be my son. My crime: having the audacity to make notes in my notebook whilst in the bar (which will remain nameless but it rhymes with Cutlers).
This approach is not helpful: I am a mature, sensible chap in my forties and after this encounter I had a strong desire to thump someone. Had I been a 20-year old pumped up with testosterone and cheap booze with an ego the size of Wales it is likely that somebody may have suffered my pent-up wrath later in the evening.
The situation we have today reminds me of football hooligans in the 1980s. If you take a bunch of society frequently reviled in the media for being trouble makers and throw them together in an environment where you make it clear that you expecting them to cause trouble you are rarely disappointed.
I’m not suggesting that we immediately cut back on the police, but there has to be a better way than this and bringing back a 2:30 curfew and closing takeaways does not sound like the solution to me.