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Why we need a late night levy on our bars

In Islington, we have a severe problem with late night drinking. It’s not unique but it’s worse than in most other London Boroughs. We have one of the highest densities of licensed premises anywhere in the country. And we experience some of the highest rates of alcohol-fuelled crime. The consequence of so much late night drinking is a huge cost in policing and clean-up. And, in tough times, it’s another financial pressure that puts great pressure on public services, especially the police and NHS.

Why has this happened? Over about 25 years the received wisdom in Islington was that the “night time economy” brought economic and social benefits to the Borough. Much of that remains true. And most of our residents enjoy having a wide, diverse range of cafes, bars, restaurants and entertainment places. But in 2005, when the last Labour Government handed licensing powers to local authorities, Islington adopted one of the country’s laxest policies. That resulted in a sharp rise in late night drinking. Almost 500 premises in Islington now have a license to serve after midnight and, in many cases, until very late indeed.

So, what to do about it? When Labour took control of the Town Hall in 2010 we promised to get a grip on late night licensing. The problem is not just pubs and clubs opening late, it’s also the epidemic of 24 hour grocery shops that have off-licenses. I often ask the question: who the hell needs to buy a bottle of vodka at 3am on Holloway Road? The answer is depressing – it’s normally people already pretty drunk who want to get even more slammed.

There is no one single solution. So Islington Council is using several regulatory tools.

First, we’ve adopted a new licensing policy which sets out a framework of closing times which are 11pm weekdays and midnight on weekends. This will apply only to new licenses or to premises so it’s going to take some time before the impact is felt widely.

Second, we’ve designated large parts of the Borough as “saturation zones”. Put simply it means no new licenses will be granted anywhere south of Angel or the areas along Upper Street, Essex Rd, Holloway Rd, at Nags Head, Finsbury Park and (for off licenses) around Archway and Tufnell Park.

Third, we’re considering something called the Late Night Levy. This is a new power which allows the Council to charge a little extra on business rates to places that sell alcohol after midnight. The Levy rules are strictly set by the Government so we have to abide by them. Smaller drinking places would pay £299 per year with the largest only £1,493 although this can rise to very big establishments which “primarily or exclusively” serve alcohol. The maximum that a mega club or pub would pay is just £4,500 a year.

This money would raise about £300,000 in Islington and, although that’s only a small part of the late night trade’s actual policing and clean-up costs, it will go some way to offsetting the burden. The people currently covering these costs are the general public who pay Council tax. Don’t forget, the Government and Mayor of London are cutting the Met Police budget by 20% and Islington Council by almost 40%. The law says that nearly three quarters of money raised by the Levy must be spent on policing. Islington Council would promise to ring-fence the remainder to offset clean-up costs and cut crime further.

Critics of the Late Night Levy say it will harm the licensed trade. In Islington, two thirds of premises will not pay the Levy because they don’t serve alcohol after midnight. And if we can financially encourage some pubs, clubs and grocery shops to stop serving at midnight, then they can avoid the Levy.

It’s time for the late-night licensed trade to step forward and take responsibility for the ill effects of excessive late night drinking. The Levy is a responsible and reasonable measure alongside other changes that Islington Council is taking to restore a more civilised eating, drinking and entertainment culture in our Borough.

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