POLICE have issued a stark warning that an ‘unacceptable level of violent crime’ caused by excessive drinking exists in Guildhall Walk.
It comes amid fears the city council’s decision to allow the Portsmouth strip’s biggest nightclub The Astoria to serve booze until 4am every weekend could bring back past troubles to the wider area – a scene of regular ‘bedlam’ less than 10 years ago, say senior officers.
Despite the positives, the chief officer of police’s concern is, it’s still a violent area.Portsmouth licensing officer PC Pete Rackham
New police figures show there were 44 reports of alleged violence and sexual offences in the street between June 2015 and 2016.
And while that is lower than the 61 violent crimes reported between 2014/2015, there are still major concerns over safety.
Guildhall Walk was made a ‘special policy area’ by authorities because of its history of violence, meaning there are tight restrictions on bars and their licences.
Portsmouth licensing officer PC Pete Rackham said that while he has no issue with the way The Astoria is run, praising the management’s strict practices, he feared an extension of its alcohol licence beyond 2am on Fridays and Saturdays would be detrimental.
He said: ‘The cumulative impact zone was put in place to combat some very serious incidents in Guildhall Walk some six years ago, and since then, things have improved.
‘The walk is very different to how it was.
‘However, there are still some issues in the area linked to violent crime, and it’s still a place that is disproportionate to other areas of the city, because there is drink-related violence in that area.
‘While most of the venues are very well operated, there is still an issue with violent crime.
‘There is still unacceptable level of violent crime in the area, but that has come down by 50 per cent in recent years.’
PC Rackham added: ‘Despite the positives, the chief officer of police’s concern is, it’s still a violent area.
‘If we allowed The Astoria to go until 4am, there is potential for cumulative impact in that area, and more issues arising from that.’
Public health bosses also continue to warn Portsmouth remains the second worst area in the south-east for the number of hospital admissions relating to booze – with 71 ambulance call-outs in and around the city centre in a 16-month period related to excessive drinking.
Despite the concerns, The Astoria only makes up two per cent of calls to police about trouble in Guildhall Walk and surrounding streets in 24 hours, which rises to four per cent between 10pm and 6am on weekends.
The Astoria co-owner Luke Betts, who is also in charge of Mutiny Festival and helping to lead the upcoming Oktoberfest Portsmouth and Southsea spectacle, in Guildhall Square, said: ‘The street has come on a long way. I think we are leading the way and one of the best-run venues down that street. We are probably the busiest venue in the city now.
‘PC Rackham was positive about us at the meeting and his representation was, we are in a cumulative impact zone. But there were a lot of positives about us.
‘There is absolutely no reason to extend a venue’s hours if they are not doing a good job, and the fact the decision went our way shows we are doing a good job.’
GUILDHALL WALK HISTORY
IN 2011, Guildhall Walk was branded the worst place in England and Wales for violence, according to the government’s crime reports website.
But figures the following year showed reports of violent crime in the ‘priority area’ for city agencies – which includes nearby Stanhope and Commercial roads – had nose-dived.
Between April and September reports fell by a fifth to 206 compared to 259 the year before.
But the area remained the worst in Portsmouth for late-night violence.
Guildhall Walk came heavily under the spotlight after marine engineer Kyle Bartlett, 21, died after being punched during a brawl at the former Walkabout bar in May 2009.
Recalling Guildhall Walk’s troubles, PC Pete Rackham said: ‘When I started in 2007, it was bedlam down there.
‘On shifts I would work, you would get out the van, end up nicking someone, take them to custody, and then find another person to arrest.
‘Guildhall Walk used to be allocated one sergeant and 20 officers, now there’s one sergeant and eight officers.’
Explaining the council’s reason for approving The Astoria’s bid, licensing hearing chairwoman councillor Hannah Hockaday said: ‘The committee made a unanimous decision to grant the licence for the premises, whilst taking into account the evidence provided by the licensing team, public health and the police. Although The Astoria is part of the cumulative impact zone, we felt the conditions that have been applied and the measures taken by the club itself were adequate to try and prevent any increase to public disorder.
‘This is something that in itself is hard to prevent, however the management have been proactive to ensure the extension of opening hours will not create further problems.
‘By extending the opening hours to 4am and by not allowing entry after 2am, this could alleviate crowds outside the club when other venues close, and ensure people leave in a controlled manner around the busiest time of the night.’
Zanzi, also in Guildhall Walk, was given permission to sell booze until 4am each weekend at a separate hearing.
ASTORIA bosses have pledged to continue controlling the comings and goings of guests with ‘military precision’.
The nightclub now has a licence to sell alcohol and stay open until 4am from Friday through to Saturday and Saturday into Sunday. But it was agreed, with the council’s licensing team, that no-one will be allowed in after 2am, and all security staff will wear body cameras to capture trouble-makers on film.
It will also help marshal the walk’s taxi rank. From 2am, guests will be gradually ‘filtered’ out of the venue to ensure there is not a huge swell of people leaving all at once.
Astoria’s sister venue, Lyberry Bar, which is connected to the premises, already holds a 4am alcohol licence.
Acting on behalf of Astoria’s owners, Philip Day, of Laceys Solicitors, said: ‘There are issues in Portsmouth, there are issues in every busy town that has a vibrant night-time economy.
‘But the reality of the situation in Portsmouth is that things have got an awful lot better. There has been a huge reduction in violent crime in the locality in part because of the very effective way in which the majority of the licensed premises and their teams are organised. The movement of guests will be handled with military precision.’
Police and licensing bosses praised the way the venue is currently being run.