For the modern student, little attention is paid to the backstage of Nottingham’s night scene. Sifting through the layers of its various power structures, it is sometimes hard to pinpoint the forces that shape our nights out in Nottingham as we know them. The crux of the whole system, unsurprisingly, is alcohol. Whether it’s a blues cocktail bar offering a dazzling array of slightly overpriced beverages or a sticky-floored club churning out Jägerbomb deals and fishbowls bigger than your head, alcohol is undeniably the bread and butter of any evening-time venue, and consequentially, night-life commerce.
At its worst, ‘Shottingham’s’ reputation precedes itself, and despite crime rates being comparably lower to its previous years, it is still higher than in most cities. At its best, however, Nottingham’s nightlife has been a honey-trap for the city’s economy and continues to attract those searching for what one stag review website described as a “rough and ready” night out. But when it comes down to deciding who gets the liquor license and who doesn’t, not everyone agrees with the way the system works.
To James Anderson, a licensing solicitor, the problem is that the council and the police have made it increasingly hard to apply for liquor licenses in the city centre. Anderson claims that this is not only a detriment to new businesses but also damaging to the quality of the city’s night life.
At the root of the local authorities’ power is the Licensing Act of 2003. Working toward a less centralised form of control, the Act handed the responsibility for issuing licenses from the government to local councils. Statistically, between 2003 and 2010, Nottingham City Council managed to cut crime rates by half, and of June 2010, Nottingham proudly received a Purple Flag status acknowledging the safety and standard of the city’s nights out.
In Anderson’s opinion, however, this has come at a cost. “Nottingham isn’t the same atmosphere as it used to be – it doesn’t provide the range of entertainment that this city’s size and standing should do.” Bars that have already lost their licenses, like Sugar and Cuba Libra, have been warned by the police that they would oppose re-applications. “The policies have made it virtually impossible for any liquor licenses to be granted in the city centre. To my knowledge, I know of no actual new liquor licenses that have been granted in the last 6 years“.
“What is frustrating me now though is the fact that Nottingham has significantly lower crime rates. Isn’t it time to start relaxing the laws?” On the contrary, the new coalition government is working toward increasing the power of the local authorities in a crackdown on crime in the UK. In Anderson’s eyes, the agenda is regressive, especially in the current economic climate: “It’s completely anti-business.”
Talking to a police inspector in the city centre, however, this is not the case. Echoing the sentiments of many who have seen the uglier side of drinking effects, Inspector Andy Townsend praises the 2003 Licensing Act as a useful tool for constraining Nottingham’s notorious binge-drinking problems and alcohol-related crime.
In the early years of the new law, applications were granted quickly and freely in a bid to kick-start Nottingham’s slow-moving economy. “The council were just saying yes to everyone”, says Townsend.
In 2003, Nottingham could boast 356 bars in just one square mile, attracting as many as 100,000 people on a weekend. In 2004, the city was experiencing its worst drug crime rate and in 2006, it became known as ‘the crime capital of England’ with the highest city murder rates according to the think tank Reform. “I remember when we actually had the Home Office coming down in person and asking us, ‘what are you doing?’”
Over the years, the council and police worked together to refine the application process by introducing a more selective filtering system. “And we’ve been a lot better for it”, says Townsend. Drinking venues are safer and actively work toward anti-binge drinking policies, which is recognised and rewarded with schemes such as the “Best Bar None” awards. Now, plastic glasses are being offered during peak-drinking hours, pitchers are advertised as ‘to share’, and sneaky psychological sales tactics once used to encourage fast-drinking have been dropped.
Vodka Revolution in The Corner House is one of the long-standing bars which, because of its responsible approach towards alcohol, won a “Best Bar None” award. The manager, James McGowan, takes no issue with the policies and is proud to have good relations with the police: “In general, I think students have benefited from these measures that prevent an excess of drinking. It hasn’t affected the quality of entertainment we have to offer and the number of alcohol-related incidents we have has definitely declined.”
Regardless of these regulations, many bars and clubs continue to slip under the police’s radar. Mirage, for example, has advertised deals on vodka and coke for 45p. For Nottingham student Ninka Mbaye, there is a fine line between a good cheap night and a cheap night spent in the emergency room. “I learnt from Fresher’s that deals like that really are too good to be true“.
“From what I’ve seen, the application process has enriched the choice and quality of Nottingham’s night life, which favours venues that bring something else to the table other than just serving alcohol”, says Andy. Despite good intentions, however, Nottingham’s local spirit and edgy reputation are considered to have somewhat ‘softened’, because of the decline of the old-style community pubs and clubs, which has redirected many locals and visitors to West Bridgeford. As for students, it seems that the restrictions contain the best of both worlds, with safer drinking venues and a more dynamic selection of entertainment. And for those slightly more strapped for cash, it is simply the case of knowing where to go to find the bars which quietly overlook some of the more restrictive regulations.