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Ashton Beer Gardens?

Beer Garden?In his continuing drive to turn Ashton Gardens into "a vibrant outdoor leisure centre" The Commissar is once again set to ruin whatever he can get his hands on. He really is 'King Midas in Reverse'. Everything he touches turns to dust in his hands, from swimming pools to election results

Instead of recognising that everyone wants these nationally important Grade II listed gardens to be an oasis of peace and tranquillity close to the town centre (as has been shown in survey after survey), the Commissar has told his officers to make a licensing application in the name of the Council.

The Council's application to itself (well, to its licensing Panel which acts as a quasi independent body) seeks permission for:

  • Regulated and other entertainment (indoor and outdoor) on and off the premises, from 9am to midnight ,seven days a week
  • Provision of late night refreshments (indoors and outdoors) on and off the premises, from 11pm to midnight ,seven days a week
  • Alcohol sales (indoor and outdoor) on and off the premises, from 9am to midnight, seven days a week

This, of course, is complete madness.

The area he wants licensed is the inside of the reproduction Ashton Institute building that is going up at present (including its semi-external veranda), together with a large paved forecourt to the front of the building - almost down to the gates of the Gardens at the St George's Road entrance.

The plan seems to be that the license will be obtained in the name of the Council.

They will then advertise the building for tender with the benefit of the alcohol, entertainment, and late night refreshment license so as to attract a tenancy payment that's higher than would otherwise be the case.

Then the Council will 'transfer' the licence as necessary to the new lessee.

We know that the Gardens' supporters group supported much of the lottery scheme that is now in progress,  but they've have 'issues' (as they say) with this building since it was first proposed.

They said it was in the wrong place and it was more about producing an income stream for the Council than about good design.

They are no less critical of this move by the Council to introduce late night entertainment and especially alcohol, into the gardens. (See the SOAG website)

We agree.

Given the trend line of alcohol related admissions to our hospitals (40% increase over the last five years and a 9.8% increase in the first three quarters of the most recent year). Its plain daft.

Add to that the hours and hours of officer time from the County Council, the Borough Council, and the folk on the Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) and the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership (all of which were instigated here by the Commissar) and who all have a key objective of reducing the impact of alcohol, especially on young people, you might be surprised that the Council would have even gone down this road. Certainly we know the Chairman of the LSP say he was very cross about the idea.

But the Commissar's drive for 'modernisation' and change knows no such restraint.

When you think about it, apart from his dogmatic and confrontationally overt party-political manner, it's probably this desire for modernisation and change that sets him so much at odds with the local demographic of people for whom change is the last thing they want.

They come here precisely because Lytham and St Anne's HASN'T changed. But he can't see this, and to use the words of his own Leader "He simply doesn't get it"

Have you ever wondered, dear reader, why anything has to be licensed?

The answer is because it is potentially harmful, and regulation aims to partially protect society from that harm. So this license application is really about how much more harm we will allow St Anne's to suffer.

We think it sends the wrong message to society that drink is a necessary part of life when you go to a Garden or take the children to a playground.

Others seem to think this as well.

Two Police and Community Together meetings (Ashton Ward and Central Ward) expressed grave concern about the proposal and objected to it as it stands, as has the Ashton Gardens Bowling Club.

The St Anne's Chamber of Trade voted to keep the gardens peaceful and quiet and to retain the alcohol free area throughout the gardens which in effect is an objection in principle.

The Gardens supporters group did the same thing, as did the Saint Anne's on the Sea Town Council.

The elders of the United Reformed Church, whose land adjoins the gardens also wrote expressing concerns, and we know of individuals living around the gardens who have objected.

At the St Anne's Town Council meeting where this was debated, we heard from Town Councillors who had met with people in the flats and on the bowling greens that were "terrified" of the consequences of this plan.

They are already having a lot of problems with youths and believe this will only increase noise and disturbance that can only make it worse.

Those living in flats that were built on part of the Gardens note that only half the flats have been occupied, and the overhead and service costs have to be met (contractually) by residents. If the other half are not occupied it could double the annual service charge the existing residents are expected to pay.

Even the one St Anne's on the Sea Town Councillor who argued in favour of the some limited alcohol provision (with very restricted hours) was opposed to the potential for disturbance. She was the most hawkish on limiting the hours during which entertainment could be provided and spoke strongly in favour of a complete ban on amplified music.

We imagine the local police will be looking at the figures on crime and disorder related to Ashton Gardens and they would be especially concerned about the prospect of the area being hired out for private parties with the potential for crowds and disorder that such uses could generate.

As we all know, our police officers are only just starting to get on top of the problems in Ashton Gardens.

So is anything else wrong?

Well yes, the plan conflicts with the founding principles of the Institute itself. Way back from 1888 and up to the Institute closing, the aim was to provide facilities to get young men 'off the street' in an atmosphere where they would be mentored by older folk. It had strict rules: No alcohol, no gambling, no bad language. The proposal for an alcohol license drives in the opposite direction.

It's only just over 12 months ago since this building was going to be a 'community cafe' serving cups of tea in the day and for the use of community groups in the evenings.

Now, the license application describes it as a Cafe bar.

As one of our readers told us "How long before it becomes Wetherspoons in the park?"

We're pretty sure that's not the Council's intended aim. And in truth, it's very easy to share the vision of chilled Chardonnay under the gaily coloured Martini umbrellas set out at the tables on the patio on a sunny Sunday afternoon that the Council would have us imagine.

But that's what it is.   A vision.   A perception shared by people would never think of throwing bottles high in the air to watch them smash on the tarmac; who wouldn't dream of taking a felt tip or spraycan into the gardens to scrawl graffiti on monuments; and who wouldn't break into the bowling pavilion and set it on fire.

People who do that sort of thing have a very different vision and value set, and sadly, it's not that of the Martini umbrella set.

In practice, the generous and liberal Martini vision will be wrecked on the rocks of reality.

Council officers have said they will advertise the cafe bar by tender, but they won't just choose a tenant on the basis of how much money they will pay. The Council say they will also undertake a quality assessment, and it may not choose the best financial offer.

Be that as it may, once this particular genie gets out of its bottle, the Council won't be able to keep control of future developments anyway.

The premises will be leased to an incoming tenant, and the lease is likely to be for seven or more years. That means it is effectively owned by the lessee. They can apply for planning permission to make their own alterations. They can apply to extend the license, they can seek to have conditions in their license removed or changed.

Most especially, they can assign the lease on to someone else of their own choosing, and the Council 'cannot unreasonably withhold giving such consent'.

So the Council can offer no guarantee whatsoever that the tenant they choose will be the person running the premises in five years or five months for that matter.

This is just what happened on the promenade.

Originally 'Slideworld' (now The Island) was conceived with children's ball ponds, climbing nets and slides. This has morphed into a pub/restaurant, a cinema, a casino that is now, in effect, a private hire night club, funfair rides and a licensed restaurant.

None of this was in the minds of those who let the first lease (we would argue was probably about as far from it as you can get).

But this is not to criticise the operators of the Island. They simply responded to the commercial imperative as any business will do faced with the need to make money.

But that's exactly why we have Councils - whose role is to provide public services, not make money (or at least it was until the Commissar arrived)

Or for another example - some of our readers will remember a cafe on Lytham esplanade called the 'Zanzibar'.

That became licensed and went upmarket when it morphed morphed into 'The Anchorage' - only to close and morph into the nightclub called 'Scruples' that caused so much trouble before it burned down uninsured leaving the Council to pick up the tab and most of the costs of its subsequent demolition.

Once leased and licensed, control is, as we have seen in these examples, effectively lost.

But there are two wider reasons not to proceed with this license.

Firstly it creates an alcohol consumption area in the middle of a prohibition zone.

The whole of the Gardens is presently designated an 'Alcohol Restricted Area'. (technically they are within the Local Authorities (Alcohol Consumption in Designated Public Places) Regulations 2001). Under these regulations the police have powers to, and do, remove and confiscate or destroy any alcohol found carried by any person within the Gardens.

How on earth is anyone to make sense of an arrangement that sends the message to drinkers (especially young ones) that drinking on the tarmac paths means the police will confiscate your drink, but drinking on the brick paviours in front of the Institute just next to the tarmac is quite OK.

How on earth can that situation support police officers trying to reduce inappropriate behaviour in the Gardens.

It will be impossible to police the boundary between these two areas.

It will lead to people taking drinks out of the licensed area and drinkers sitting round the steps of the war memorial, round the bowling greens and around the playgrounds.

How respectful will it appear when people take their drinks outside the licensed area and sit on the steps of the war memorial that deserves far more respect. Who's going to be there to stop them? The waitress?

You can pretty much bet the police won't be there. We can envisage them simply giving up on policing the alcohol ban on the gardens altogether. And who's to blame them if this lunacy goes forward.

And who is going to stop glasses and bottles being taken onto the grass areas where even accidental breakages into the grass or in the playground will result in cut feet on children and pets.

Who's going to stop people bringing their own cans of alcohol into the gardens and saying "Well they're drinking there, go and stop them first" It makes a mockery of what the police are trying to do.

It also appears that before the application was made, the Council hadn't consulted the police about it at all. We have to wonder what sort of approach that demonstrates for an organisation that itself has a statutory duty to reduce crime and disorder.

Second, we have the position of the Council itself to consider.

On their behalf, we have heard their officers say we should just trust them, and they will make sure it is all proper and above board.

Contrast their plea in this regard with the following quote from their freehold purchase of Ashton Gardens....

"...The Council hereby covenant with the Vendor and his assigns, and as a separate covenant with the Mortgagee and his assigns, that the Council and its assigns will forever hereafter.... ..not use any part of the pieces of land herby assigned or any buildings thereon for the sale of wines spirits or intoxicating liquors save and except under or by occasional or temporary licenses from time to time granted by or with the consent of the Licensing Authority for the district in which the premises are situated..."

We understand their solicitor has not been instructed to seek the removal of that covenant, and he does not expect to be asked to remove it.

The implication of this is that the Council simply intend to ignore it.

They might be strictly within the law if they do this, (because they expect no one challenge it).

But it speaks volumes about the Commissar's willingness to break the promise given by his predecessors. They were people of stature and standing. They were people with wisdom and experience, who were also humble enough to put the wishes and best interests of their electorate over the ability to create income.

So as we also remember John Coombes' promise to turn the Gardens into "A vibrant outdoor leisure centre" we believe that, with him at the helm, the present incarnation of the Cabinet that makes these decision simply cannot be trusted to keep sufficient control of our property if the premises are permanently licensed.

The solution to this problem is to retain the status quo. To keep Ashton Gardens as an Alcohol Free Zone except for specific Temporary Event Licenses, each of which may be judged on the merits of their individual case.

But sadly, we think the Commissar's officers are already preparing the spin that they will use to counter public opposition to this idea.

We suspect some of the objections already made will be ruled out of order because the people don't live 'within the vicinity' (which FBC takes to be around 150 yards of the licenses premises) so desperate are they to prevent people from objecting to premises licenses.

We also hear stories about arguments being prepared that say well, temporary event licenses aren't the solution either because we can't exert as much control and a licensee can have up to 15 events year without asking for permission.

What this doesn't say is that it applies to temporary events where a PERMANENT licence has already been granted. So in its twisted, doublespeak way, that's yet another reason not to have the license. Read the letter from Dr Gudgeon in the SOAG representation if you want to know more about the trouble this could cause.

As so often with the Commissar, you can't always believe the words you hear.

The Licensing panel, (acting as being quasi-independent from the Council) will decide purely on licensing rules as set out in the stupid law that prevents proper account being taken of all the factors. So they won't take account of a lot of what people are concerned about.

So the only real possibility to deal with this situation - a situation that is about to become the next in a long line of disasters being lined up behind the Commissar (after the totally unwarranted demolition of the Ashton Garden Gardening Exhibition Centre, the sale of part of the Gardens for a block of flats, the closure of our modern swimming pool, the loss of hundreds of thousands of pounds in 'Streetscene' department, the waste of even more hundreds of thousands of pounds in plans for a new town hall that are about to be abandoned, and a catalogue of disasters the listing of which could go on to clear a rainforest of trees for paper), the only way to squash this, is for the Conservative Councillors who understand how the area should be managed to take control of this lunacy and have the application withdrawn altogether - irrespective of what the Commissar wants.

We hope they will.

Dated:  28 August 2009


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