Croydon Council launches biggest alcohol crackdown in the UK
THREE-quarters of Croydon could be deemed a no-go area for licensed premises as the council launches the biggest crackdown on alcohol in the UK.
A radical ban on booze could see 17 of 24 wards – including the entire north of the borough – designated as 'Cumulative Impact Zones' (CIZ).
The council will have the power to reject all licence applications – including amendments to existing agreements such as extending hours – unless the pub, club or shopkeeper can prove their business will not add to existing drink-related problems in the area.
While the crackdown covers all premises selling alcohol, serving food late at night or playing live music, Simon Hoar, cabinet member for community safety and public protection, said the new rules are aimed specifically at off-licences and convenience stores.
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The zones, adopted on a smaller scale in cities such as Brighton and Nottingham, have been branded "anti-business" and difficult to justify when applied to larger areas.
The wards covered by the powers, contained within the draft licensing policy published this week, are Addiscombe, Ashburton; Bensham Manor; Broad Green; Croham; Fairfield; Fieldway; Purley; New Addington; Norbury; Selhurst; South Norwood; Thornton Heath; Upper Norwood; Waddon; West Thornton and Woodside.
The council said the decision as to which areas would be included in the crackdown was "mainly based on crime and disorder".
Though it was unable to provide specific reasons for any of the wards before the Advertiser went to press, Cllr Hoar said all the zones were "justified".
"We looked at each area individually," he said. "Some wards have high levels of crime and in others it was more about public health and people being taken to hospital with alcohol-related injuries or accidents.
"With each area we need to be able to justify that there's a good case for having a CIZ in that ward and I think we have done that."
Licence applications are currently automatically approved if the council receives no objections – and even if concerns are raised there is a legal presumption for them to be passed unless there are strong reasons not to.
Under the new plans uncontested applications would still be automatically passed but as soon as an objection was raised the pub, club or shopkeeper would face the difficult task of proving their business would not cause further problems in the area.
Cllr Hoar said each application would be treated on its merits and that the new powers were "not really about pubs and clubs".
"It's about the sheer number of applications from off-licences and convenience stores that sell alcohol," he added.
"At the moment the presumption is you have to give approval unless there is a strong reason why not."
Jeremy Frost, chairman of the Croydon branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "Sooner or later the powers that be need to understand that businesses must be left alone.
"They need to be able to earn money and give people employment, not required to fill in forms and traverse endless amounts of red tape."
Croydon has the seventh highest binge drinking rate of any local authority in England. About 2,300 people attend Croydon University Hospital's A&E with alcohol-related injuries each year.
But when asked whether the borough had a problem with alcohol, and whether the zones were a recognition of this, Cllr Hoar said he "didn't know".
"There are always problems but has Croydon got a particular problem? It's probably just like any other town," he added.
Councils have the power to create Special Stress Areas (SSAs), where premises are closely monitored but the presumption is not to reject new or amended applications. Cllr Hoar was not aware of the measure but said it "sounded like a great idea".
Paul Smith, Labour's spokesman for crime and public protection, said the council needed to balance reducing disorder with the interests of businesses.
He said: "We absolutely need to address some of the excesses we have – particularly the availability of cheap alcohol – but there's a balance to be struck in terms of encouraging inward investment and creating jobs in the areas covered by the zones."
The amended licensing policy has been drawn up in consultation with NHS Croydon, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the police.
Superintendent Rob Atkin said: "We're fully supportive of the council's decision to explore the use of cumulative impact zones in certain parts of the borough and we'll be working closely with the council and other partners during the consultation period."
The policy is out for public consultation, with April 22 being set as the deadline for comments.
The chairman of Croydon Pubwatch believes there should not be an 'assumption' that all pubs and clubs contribute to crime.
Esther Sutton, manager of High Street pub The Green Dragon, is supportive of the principles behind cumulative impact policies but questioned whether the zones were needed.
"It is true Croydon suffers from negative impact of antisocial behaviour, but the town centre is far safer than it was," she said.
Ms Sutton said venues already work closely with the police to reduce trouble and fears that starting from the basis of rejecting licence applications will affect existing, as well as new, businesses.
"Croydon's licensed premises contribute to the overall economy of the borough, providing diversity, entertainment, leisure and employment," she said.
"Times are challenging for many of us. We may need licence variations in order to remain competitive in a tough economic climate, and it would be a shame if our applications were refused or hampered because we happened to trade in a Cumulative Impact Zone."
Pubwatch acts as a regular forum for clubs, pubs and bars as well as a platform to plan before big events, like the World Cup, Christmas or the new year.
Meetings are attended by licensees, police and council licensing teams, trading standards and representatives from door security firms, and the initiative is credited reducing disorder associated with drinking.
"The vast majority of town centre pubs and clubs are run responsibly," said Ms Sutton.
"There are issues with customers 'pre-loading' – drinking before they come out – which can lead to antisocial behaviour.
"As responsible premises licensees we often end up looking after these individuals.
"There should be equal focus on supermarkets and off-licences retailing alcohol for consumption off the premises in the Cumulative Impact Zones.
"I strongly agree that antisocial behaviour and crime and disorder in Croydon needs to be tackled. However I think each licence application or variation must be on the merit of the individual pub or bar."
Cumulative Impact Zones are 'anti-business' and may put companies off moving to Croydon, a leading licensing expert has warned.
Solicitor James Anderson works for Nottingham-based Poppleston Allen, which specialises in licensing and has businesses affected by the 130 or so zones established by local authorities across the country.
Mr Anderson believes the area under consideration in Croydon would be the largest ever established.
"It's massive," he said. "Three years ago Brighton tried to introduce a massive area and at the time it was the biggest. Eventually that was withdrawn and they settled for a smaller zone.
"The council has to be satisfied that an area has so many difficulties in relation to crime and disorder and that the way to deal with these issues is to protect against the granting of new licences. To satisfy that test for such a large area would be hard."
Cities to have adopted cumulative impact zones include Southampton, Blackpool and Nottingham.
But Mr Anderson is not convinced they had the desired impact.
"They are anti-business and anti-competition," he said.
"The zones are unfair because they judge businesses not on quality but on the general impact on the area and the onus is on the applicant to prove it's not going to make the situation worse.
"If there are already ten bars on the street, how can your presence not make the situation in some way worse? It's very draconian, especially because once they are in they are very rarely removed.
"I can think of one area – Guildford – out of more than 130 where a zone was taken away.
"It's very political because the zones are a way of appearing to be doing something about a problem. Politicians buy into it rather than really considering whether it’s needed.
"But once they are in they are probably there to stay."
Ultimately, Mr Anderson believes potential licensees will shun Croydon for areas where controls are less rigid.
He said: "Existing premises support it because they don’t want more competition but new businesses will go elsewhere.
"Why fight a battle when you can somewhere else without a cumulative impact zone?
"So Croydon will lose out. That's the problem.
"This is a policy which says 'Don’t come here, we have a problem with alcohol'."
Meanwhile, one business leader said the council should focus on gambling, not drinking.
Ganapathy Kasinathan, chairman of London Road Business Association, and other traders in Broad Green have created a petition against an application to turn a branch of Chicken Cottage into a Paddy Power.
"Betting shops are our main concern," he said.
"They have a bad impact on the community. They attract the unemployed and people who are involved with gangs. They lower the reputation of the area.
"People who are out of work or have a low income are desperate for money. They go to gamble and they become different people.
"When they run out they look for other ways of getting money like stealing from shops, snatching phones or taking jewellery from women. This kind of action is completely unacceptable."
Mr Kasinathan added: "We are much more worried about the crime levels which are associated with gambling but restricting the number of licensed premises is good because there are too many in London Road.
"There is too much competition and no one benefits."