The growth of the night- time economy in the last few years has become a matter of considerable concern to the residents of Herne Hill. It has occurred since the coming into force of the Licensing Act 2003, which took the responsibility for licensing premises for the of drinking alcohol and entertainment away from the Licensing Magistrates and vested them in local authorities, and in principle enabled 24 hour drinking at such premises. No 24 hour licences have in fact been granted anywhere in the Herne Hill area but a number of premises have been licensed to remain open until 5 or 5.30 am.
Problems of anti-social behaviour associated with drinking into the early hours have been exacerbated in Herne Hill by the fact that the boundary between Lambeth and Southwark runs through the centre of the area and historically the two boroughs have not communicated on matters of common interest or sought to harmonise policies for the area. Another problem has been that local residents have been slow to register complaints about disturbances at night. When Southwark was contemplating introduction of a saturation policy in five areas of the borough (including Herne Hill), which could have resulted in a presumption against any further late-night licences in those areas, Herne Hill was speedily eliminated from the running on the grounds that so few complaints had been registered about the frequent incidents of disorder that it did not appear to be a problem area. Furthermore, training given to councillors on the Licensing sub- committees, who make the decisions on licensing applications, appears to instruct them that there is a presumption under the legislation (not apparent on the face of it) in favour of granting licence applications for the hours requested, even though Government guidance on the matter states that one of the aims of the legislation is “the necessary protection of local residents whose lives can be blighted by disturbance and antisocial behaviour associated with the behaviour of some people visiting licensed premises of entertainment.” Notwithstanding this, most representations made by local residents and bodies representing them, such as the Herne Hill Society and local residents’ associations have been ignored in favour of the applicants’ desires. The disconnect between Lambeth and Southwark has however recently been countered by the establishment of a working group on the initiative of local traders, residents and their associations, councillors, police on both sides of the border and the licensing authorities. This has resulted in some significant progress in getting cooperation and follow up action, with the Lambeth police being particularly pro-active in closing down some small licensed premises.
Three larger establishments have been of particular concern, namely Hypnotik Bar (formerly Brockwell’s) at 75-79 Norwood Road; Sebastians Bar (formerly Tsolo Jazz Bar at 49-51 Norwood Road and Destinys (formerly Escape Bar) in Railton Road, opposite Herne Hill station, and these will be looked at in turn. The evolution of events relating to them, particularly in the case of the first two, show what local residents have been up against in attempts to curb their activities. Whenever they have had the opportunity, they have argued before the authorities that Herne Hill is primarily a residential area, a neighbourhood centre in planning terms, and not a town centre suitable for the development of the night economy, but their case has usually been ignored in favour of the commercial interests of the club owners. There is little local demand for the facilities offered by these clubs whose patrons come almost entirely from outside the area, no doubt hoping for a lesser police presence than in some South London town centres. They generally arrive by car and park them in the local residential streets as there is little scope for parking outside the bars. The cars are collected after closing time in the early hours of the morning, with much disturbance to the residents in the form of raised voices, car door slamming and the revving of engines.
First, Hypnotik. After attempts by local residents to restrict their operating hours, this bar was in February 2006 granted an extension to provide licensed activities, sale of alcohol and music and dancing, until 3.30 am on Thursdays through Saturdays, with closing one hour later. Following complaints, the police raided the premises in March 2008 and found on the premises customers in possession of a loaded firearm, knives and Class A and C drugs, as well as minors under the age of 16. Following this the Southwark Licensing Sub-committee reviewed the terms of the premises licence and reduced the hours for licensed activities until 1 am on Mondays through Saturdays and 11.30 pm on Sundays. Local residents were surprised that the review had not resulted in the withdrawal of the licence. Following this there was a marked decrease in anti-social behaviour including noise disturbance and illegal barbeques near the premises. Subsequently the management applied for a restoration of the previous hours but were in March 2009 granted only a 30 minute extension on Fridays and Saturdays. Local residents had made strong representations to the sub-committee against any change to the hours but considered the short extension as something of a victory and took it as a hopeful indication that the Licensing Sub-committee was becoming more favourable to the wishes of residents.
Their pleasure was however short lived as the Hypnotik appealed against this decision to the Camberwell magistrates. At the hearing, the stipendiary magistrate brushed aside the oral testimony given on behalf of local residents and chose to accept assurances given by the manager that he would in future not admit to the premises anyone under 23 years old and would strengthen the monitoring and security provisions of customers seeking entrance. As a result, at the end of July 2009 the 4.30 am closing time was restored. Immediately following this extension there was a considerable increase in noise and disorder in the vicinity, including the shooting of a 19 year old outside the premises, and a resumption of the illegal barbeques fouling the pavements with waste food. In the spirit of the new vigilance and police pro-activity set in train by the setting up of the working group referred to above, the police mounted a number of covert operations by plain clothed officers who reported numerous breaches of the licensing conditions relating to the checking of customers entering the premises, drug taking and the serving of alcohol to underage customers. There was also evidence of an attempted kidnapping of a 16 year old girl outside the premises. On the basis of these the police applied for the premises licence to be reviewed with a view to its being revoked. Local residents and amenity societies supported the revocation and again gave evidence at the hearing in March 2010 before the Licensing sub-committee. The sub-committee regrettably refused to accept the police case linking the premises with the shooting and attempted kidnapping outside it and bizarrely chose to treat the breaches of the licensing conditions as mere technical breaches warranting simply the imposition of a 21 day suspension of the licence. After that it was back to business as usual at the Hypnotik. It remains to be seen whether this rebuff to the police in this case is going to lessen their drive to close down offending premises.
Sebastians Bar. Though this has given rise to fewer problems than the Hypnotik, activities there have also caused concern to residents. In the face of opposition from local residents and bodies representing them, its premises licence permitted the sale of alcohol and the provision of music and dancing until 4 am each day, with a 5.30 am closing time. Its licence however contained a restricting condition that intoxicating liquor should not be sold or supplied on the premises otherwise than to persons taking table meals as ancillary to those meals, which condition was clearly being widely breached. In October 2009 the management successfully applied to the Southwark Licensing Sub-committee for the removal of this condition. Subsequently, Southwark’s planning department stepped into the scene pointing out that the premises were acting in breach of the planning laws as there had been no planning permission for change of use from a restaurant to a night club and in May 2010 served a planning enforcement notice to prevent continued breach. The bar has appealed against this notice on the grounds that there is no evidence that it was operating as a night club (which is not defined in law) and that the enforcement notice was therefore misconceived and should be set aside. As at the time of writing (late July) the issue has yet to be decided by the Planning Inspectorate. Local residents and organisations had been asked to make comments by 23 July and a number of them have responded to point out that the premises make no attempt to present themselves as a bona fide restaurant as no menu is posted and the black plate glass facia completely prevents any view of the interior and presents a threatening and hostile image to passers-by, the antithesis of the welcoming characteristics expected of a restaurant. On the contrary, its opening hours and the operating conditions under its licence under the licensing regime show all the characteristics of a night club and that therefore the appeal against the planning enforcement notice should be dismissed.
Destinys, in its former guise as the Escape Bar was noted for disorderly conduct and the loud noise of recorded music coming out of its doors and windows, frequently left open, causing considerable nuisance to adjoining residents and passers-by in Railton Road. The premises had to close in August 2009 after a fire, apparently arson, destroyed much of the interior and they remained closed for many months. Earlier this year they reopened as Destinys. In its new guise it is still the source of an unacceptable level of noise, despite the installation of an inner partition with doors behind the shop front which has the disturbing effect of preventing anyone outside seeing what goes on in the interior. It has also been the scene of number of disorders, including fighting. A recent fracas involving customers outside the premises in the early hours of 17 July, the first day of the Lambeth Country Show, resulted in the street being closed off for many hours whilst the police investigated an incident of apparent grievous bodily harm, to the great annoyance of the neighbouring traders whose customers were turned back. It was initially believed that the incident involved knives but it is now accepted that it was broken glass rather than knife blades that caused the bloodshed.
Weaknesses in the current licensing laws under the Licensing Act 2003 and the way they are interpreted and enforced seem to be at the root of the nuisances and deterioration in the quality of life being suffered by residents in Herne Hill - and of course other comparable areas. The new coalition Government has promised to review the workings of the law and to make necessary amendments, including it is to be hoped more protection of the interests of residents and a test of local demand for any new licensed bars in predominantly residential areas. Herne Hill residents long for a happy outcome to this review.