Police win pub opening hours victory

ONE of the most senior policemen in Essex yesterday hailed as a “major step forward” a court ruling which could drive out yobs from a town centre's streets at closing time.

ONE of the most senior policemen in Essex yesterday hailed as a “major step forward” a court ruling which could drive out yobs from a town centre's streets at closing time.

Colchester police commander Chief Supt Dave Murthwaite welcomed a decision from magistrates which could mean an end to blanket approval for extended drinking hours in the town on the likes of bank holidays.

Outside Colchester Magistrates' Court at Stanwell House yesterday, he said: “This is good news for our residents and the first big step to reducing yobbish and rowdy behaviour on Friday and Saturday nights – we really have to stop it.”

His comments came after the town's licensing magistrates ruled that in future that they would not grant blanket approval to extension applications from pubs en masse.

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This has prevented the police from planning resources properly and only shifts the simultaneous spilling out time from 11pm to up to three hours later, causing a spiral of alcohol-related crime.

Mr Murthwaite said he made his unusual appearance at Colchester Magistrates' Court at Stanwell House yesterday to “lay down a marker” to publicans and show police were cracking down on drink problems.

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Coming only days after the Home Office announced a raft of proposals to tackle England's binge drinking culture, research released by the police yesterday revealed Colchester has a large problem with alcohol-related violence and this is costing taxpayers dearly.

Of 717 public order incidents in the first half of 2003, almost 400 – 55% - were alcohol-related and of those 8% involved glass or bottle attacks.

Police say the cost of attending drink-related disturbances in the town centre during December was almost £25,000 – not including the cost of police vehicles and subsequent proceedings.

In court yesterday, Mr Murthwaite said he wanted to end this waste and pressed magistrates to dismiss block approval for a group of pubs wanting to stay open late around bank holidays this year.

In the past, licensing magistrates have granted blanket extensions to Colchester and North East Essex Licensed Victuallers' Association (LVA) members, which allows them to remain open until 1am.

Mr Murthwaite said this prevented his force from being able to plan properly because officers did not know which individual pubs – most of which are outside the town centre - were actually staying open late.

But more significantly, he said, such blanket approval allowed more commercial town centre pubs – with an appetite for advertising happy hours and other cheap drink promotions - to “piggy back” on LVA applications knowing precedents had been set.

“The practical effect of this is that larger town centre premises, which are significantly different in terms of clientele, style and community impact will seek equality in terms of extended hours to those granted to the LVA,” he told the court.

“It is these premises that are of most concern to the police.”

Ruling, John Valentine, chairman of the licensing justices, said the police's objections had this time come too late for the LVA application to be refused, but that in future LVA publicans would have to state when they actually wanted an extension until rather than just giving an across-the-board 1am time.

He added that other town centre premises lodging applications from now on would have their cases judged on individual merit.

John Parker, chairman of the Colchester LVA, said he understood the police's concerns, and welcomed the ruling, but insisted the problems remained confined to town centre pubs, most of which are not members of his organisation.

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