A Very Local Democracy: How a Community Shaped a Neighbourhood

Southsea resident, Tony Brown, joined his neighbours to protest the opening of a nightclub in a residential area. Together, this unlikely community group took on the nightclub industry to fight for their neighbourhood, and won. This is how they did it.

If asked to name the last thing you would want a few yards from your doorstep, a nightclub with all the trimmings would probably rank alongside an airport runway and a raw sewage outlet. With their boorish, binge-drinking clientele, nightclubs are anathema to any residential area yet, in 2009, I and my neighbours found ourselves confronted by the very real threat of a former restaurant opening as a nightclub within yards of our homes.

What had been a Chinese restaurant for thirty years or so had recently been closed at the behest of HMRC; a new leaseholder had acquired the premises and was proclaiming its intention to introduce ‘fusion cuisine’ to the town. Or so we were told.

Along with almost everyone living nearby, I had taken very little notice of the official publicity, perhaps because it amounted to a small, unobtrusive notice posted in the restaurant window and strapped to a couple of nearby lampposts. It was a note from my neighbour, Paul, that finally alerted me to the application for a licence to sell alcohol until 2.00am, seven nights a week, just a few yards from my front door.

The licence application convinced us that the exciting “fusion restaurant” was actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In a clumsy attempt to smuggle the late closing time past the scrutiny of local residents, their solicitor had worded the licence with a focus on anti-smoking legislation, including only a minute reference to the proposed change to a 2.00am closing time.

I met with Paul and we decided to oppose the licence application by raising a petition and canvassing the neighbourhood. It was daunting. There were only two of us and we weren’t very confident of success, but we weren’t prepared to just sit and watch it happen. A website announcing that the new place was to be called “The Buddha Bar” and not “The Buddha Restaurant” persuaded us of the rightness of our cause. We realised we needed to get a wriggle on if we wanted to head them off at the pass.

Despite our initial reticence, once we started canvassing we quickly found out we weren’t alone. Other residents were equally concerned, had also begun a petition and were delighted to join forces. Within a few days we had several hundred signatures. More importantly, we had around twenty souls prepared to take an active part in any campaigning to ensure a nightclub-free neighbourhood.

We held a meeting to take stock and found that we were well provided with talented people including a former city councillor who was able to advise us in procedural matters. Few of us had realized the extent to which we could oppose any planning or licensing application. Equally, we weren’t aware of the extent of the power that groups of ordinary people can exercise in the pursuit of justice.

But we soon found out.

In his much quoted and widely unread tome The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: “Know your enemy.” Wise words, but other than being on nodding terms with a few workmen and the three owners of the place we didn’t know our enemy at all.

One of our team, an accountant, researched the structure of the company we were opposing and found that there was a labyrinthine trail leading eventually to the West Midlands and that one of the directors had a track record involving several insolvent companies and unpaid suppliers. It was no surprise to find that these folk were experienced in the nightclub business but a bit threadbare when it came to restaurants.

Simply by visiting the council’s planning department another of our enthusiastic team obtained copies of the plans for the layout of the ‘restaurant’. There was no doubt a nightclub was what the owners had in mind; the plans showed a long bar with four cash registers – a sure sign they were telling downright lies.

Two planning officers at the town hall proved very helpful with regard to procedural matters, giving us priceless advice that saved much unnecessary effort.

Meanwhile, back at the restaurant, work was going on apace as the faux restaurateurs and their builders readied themselves for the grand opening. But, first they had to obtain a licence at a council committee. We arranged a strong presence at the hearing to let the committee know there was substantial local opposition to the application. For citizens planning their own campaigns, a good show of solidarity is essential at council meetings. It intimidates the opposition, provides your own speakers with confidence, and favourably impresses whichever official body you are addressing.

On the day of the hearing, about fifteen of us made our way to the licensing committee. The directors of the bar-restaurant-nightclub, three in all, were there already, looking very confident, almost smug.

The hearing took less than an hour, during which we were allowed to cross-examine the The Buddha Bar directors. We contended they were intending to open a nightclub, which they strenuously denied.

Our spokesman, John asked casually what sort of bar they were planning to run in their ‘restaurant.’

‘Oh, just a small bar where one or two people may have a quiet drink while they decide whether they want to have a meal, that sort of thing,’ came the answer.

John lobbed in a hand grenade. “So why do you need four cash registers on your bar?”

They waffled and waffled but couldn’t provide a convincing answer. Their case crumpled.

When the verdict came in, the committee ruled the owners could operate their bar as long as it closed at 9.00pm, killing the plan to run the place as a nightclub.

The nightclub directors were stunned. Their plan to slip the camouflaged amendment past the licensing committee and open for business had been stopped abruptly by well-organized local residents and a licensing committee that refused to act as a rubber stamp. To the directors, we had become the biggest suppository in the world.

The venue was still entitled to ten Temporary Event licences per year, permitting them to serve alcohol beyond the 9pm limit. When the directors used two of these for their opening weekend, we were given a glimpse of what would have ended up on our doorstep had we not decided to oppose it. In the restaurant, no Michelin judges or even the odd anal and effete suburban gastronome writing for the local rag were in sight. Instead, there was standing room only for a mob of lumpen and louty binge drinkers.

We left them to their party. The bar would be forced to operate within much tighter constraints forty-eight hours later when the temporary licence ran out.

But the directors had one more trick up their sleeve. They lodged an appeal to be heard in court.

Although we were initially uncertain how to respond, we soon found out we could apply to appear at the appeal hearing as an interested party.

We also discovered that though possible, such a move had never been attempted before. If we succeeded, we’d be making legal history.

We acquired the services of a solicitor with experience of licensing matters who was prepared to act for us.

Then we considered legal fees. Although it would be difficult for some of us, we were all prepared to stump up whatever was needed to pursue our cause. But we needn’t have worried; the cavalry soon arrived in the form of the local town council.

We had already spoken to councillors on both sides who encouraged us to apply for a grant to assist with our legal costs. The application was to be considered by the full council so we turned up to the decision meeting in strength, almost forty of us. The councillors voted unanimously to award us the grant. We no longer needed to worry about meeting our legal costs.

We expressed our relief at having this yoke lifted from our shoulders by heading to the nearest pub.

The directors’ appeal was to be heard in October but first we needed permission to be represented as an interested party, allowing us the opportunity to lodge our objections to the appeal and to cross-examine the appellants. Our application was put to a judge who granted us approval to appear. To our surprise, the solicitor acting for the appellants then went into meltdown. Less than an hour later, the appeal was withdrawn.

We had finally won.

Our opponents in the nightclub industry were well organized, well financed and operating on familiar territory. We, on the other hand, were simply a group of determined amateurs who were prepared to take up the cudgel to protect our quality of life.

I believe there is a tendency nowadays for us to adopt a fatalistic attitude to the idea that we, as citizens, can make a change. In situations like ours, residents may get up a petition and present it to the relevant authority, but, if the decision goes against us, too often we pack up and go home, all the effort of canvassing support wasted.

By contrast, I can only tell you that democracy in action is something wonderful to see, particularly when the vote goes your way.

For me, the most satisfying results from our campaign are the friendships forged between neighbours and the birth of a community spirit in our neighbourhood. Together we are now more vigilant; we take more interest in our vicinity. Now, if anything other than a lost-cat picture appears strapped to a lamppost we read it. Nothing escapes our collective notice.

We know more about our rights and are confident in standing up for them because we now know that we can succeed.

Photograph by Maki R. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons