The Synergy Centre and Sussex Police are to sit down and attempt to thrash out an agreement over the centre’s licence bid after a five hour hearing yesterday.
Bitter words were spoken on both sides in the council chamber, with police accusing the management of “bloody mindedness” and time-wasting, and the centre accusing police of being resistant to the idea its customers are more peaceful than the usual West Street crowd.
At the heart of the matter is the police’s contention that a large venue open and selling alcohol until the early hours in West Street would inevitably add to the booze-fuelled problems in the city centre – and concerns over its management, which has already breached licensing laws three times.
But the centre says its customers are more cultured, responsible and “Brighton” than in other nightclubs, and that it needs the profits from selling alcohol to fund good works, such as a homeless outreach and events promoting alternative, “conscious” lifestyles.
And it also says if it is not given a licence, Brighton risks losing out on its only medium sized live music venue as its owners, who are renting it to Synergy on a meanwhile lease, want to knock it down and turn it into a luxury hotel in the next 18-24 months.
Jean Irving, Sussex Police’s head of licensing, told Brighton and Hove City Centre’s licensing committee that she and her team had spent up to 60 hours discussing the application, which was beginning to take them away from dealing with “real issues in the city”.
She said: “I’m quite amazed at the centre’s lack of understanding of the licensing act. I’m at an absolute loss to understand what extra guidance we could have provided.
“What they wanted us to do was to tell them how to circumvent the cumulative impact zone [which prevents late night licences opening in the city centre unless there are exceptional circumstances] and I didn’t think that was our responsibility.”
When asked about the last meeting held between centre management and police, called by ward councillor Tom Druitt, she said: “Effectively, the bloody mindedness that these are the hours made it clear that we are not going to be able to get to a compromise.
“I made the comment that if those were the hours, I would fight it all the way. After an hour and a half wasting the time of three senior officers, I was exasperated.”
Centre manager Steve Peake, who moved to Brighton himself four years ago, said: “In West Street, 80% or 90% of people are from out of town who come here to get drunk.
“Our audience is almost exclusively Brighton based and made up of the kind of people that Brighton is becoming rightly known – socially aware, considerate people.
“We are also an organisation promoting considerate, conscious ways of behaviour. Not only are we not going to add to the cumulative impact zone but the idea that they’re going to cause crime and disorder is absurd.
“Our ability to communicate this to the authorities has been compromised. It’s standard practice to risk assess on a number of different factors, one of which is the drinking culture.
“Mrs Irving in particular seems resistant to the idea and that’s putting it mildly, that we can risk assess in any different way other than numbers.”
Mr Peake also objected to the police “misrepresenting” the running of the previous incarnation of the Synergy Centre in Camberwell, in particular “gang shootings”, which he said referred to one incident which came about because he was helping children at risk of joining gangs.
He added: “What the authorities need to do is a more co-operative approach, which is what we had in Camberwell.”
The risk assessment procedure Mr Peake cited is one he says the Met operates, and which has been branded racist as it penalises venues which play “black” music such as hip hop and bashment.
His contention that officers in Camberwell used this policy were strongly denied by the Met Police, which said if he repeated the claims, he could face legal action.
Chair of the committee Mo Marsh said: “Whatever we think about the merit of your centre, that’s not within the scope of our decision making powers.”
Mr Peake also reassured the committee that if a licence was granted, it was written into the centre’s lease that it could not be passed to a new operator with a different ethos, adding: “That’s exactly what the landlord was trying to do – use us as a Trojan Horse.”
The licensing breaches recorded by the police to date include having alcohol on display without a licence, including the price of a glass of wine in the ticket to an evening event, and holding an event with loud music without a licence.
On the first occasion, a police officer trying to pursue a suspect was also denied entry to the premises. Mr Peake said this was done by a member of Love Activists, who were running a cafe for the homeless there, and as a result they were no longer using the centre.
The licensing officer told the committee that the length of a 133-page operating manual submitted by the applicant made it impossible for an officer to be able to visit the premises and establish whether it was being followed.
She also commented on the lack of proposed conditions which might demonstrate the centre’s commitment to not having a negative impact. Mr Peake asked her how a venue comes up with these conditions, saying the centre had made it clear it was willing to “enter into a dialogue” about them.
The licensing officer said this was not the council’s role, and suggested hiring someone with professional experience or looking at conditions proposed by nearby venues with similar licenses.
The hearing was adjourned part heard after centre management agreed to consider shorter opening hours and a reduced capacity, possibly around midnight and 500 people. The committee is expected to reconvene after Easter.
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