Laughing gas for sale, by chip and pin

by Mark Rowe

A report to Camden licensing committee councillors last week, as a review of its licensing policies, serves as a snapshot of London security issues, Mark Rowe writes.

Most eating and drinking venues around Seven Dials in central London keep to their licence conditions; not so a premises near Tottenham Court Road Underground station, at midnight, on a weekend in March 2023. Large crowds were accumulating, and drinking on the street. Drug dealing and use was ‘widespread’. The nitrous oxide ‘laughing gas’, NOx, ‘was being retailed openly; as a sign of how everyday and organised the dealing was, ‘balloon sellers’ (the buyer inhales the gas from the balloon) were ‘using 5g chip and pin machines to sell to customers exiting premises’. Most venues, the researchers noted, do have door staff who manage queues and disperse night-goers. The next night surveyed, St Patrick’s Day a week later, venues had prepared by hiring extra staff; the observers found the ‘same issues around dispersal at Tottenham Court Road Station’.

Earlier in the year, observing around the main stations of Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross before a cup final in February, the researchers saw ‘considerable begging, street urination, litter, and vomit on the streets’ and commented on ‘a surprisingly limited police presence despite the large number of football fans dominating the public space’ (two northern teams, Newcastle and Manchester United, were playing the next day at Wembley). The report concluded that peak times (such as football matches) saw an ‘increased police presence’; otherwise:

very little uniform presence in the borough at night, particularly foot patrols, which negatively affects feelings of safety and allows drug dealing and other anti-social issues to persist.    

The report in the end suggested that the licensing regime is working; that while the borough is not free from ‘issues’, the borough does not need a cumulative impact assessment (CIA), which in licensing terms would mean a council can refuse permission for further pubs, off-licences, or betting shops, for instance. As of September 2023 the Camden council area in north London had some 1712 licensed premises. The biggest single category of the 1712 are restaurants; then come pubs and off-licences, nightclubs (wet-led premises, in the jargon), hotels, cinemas, even three ‘sex entertainment venues’. Camden Council approves hundreds of new premises licence applications each year. In short, licensed premises or put another way the night-time economy (NTE) matters to the city’s economic health. Indeed, Sadiq Khan the Mayor of London has hailed the city’s hospitality sector as ‘world-leading’ and ‘unrivalled’.

Diners, concert-goers and clubbers need to eat and travel, and maybe stay in hotels; hence further economic activity. What of crime, and the risk of nuisances, whether caused by those enjoying themselves in the NTE, or criminals preying on the law-abiding, such as snatch thieves (particularly around Euston, according to the document for councillors)?

That parts around main rail stations, or Tube stations, can be disorderly is hardly novel, nor particular to Britain. The report noted street drinking around King’s Cross station (by ‘those with street-based lifestyles’) as opposed to ‘public drinking’ (by those paying in the NTE). While ‘public drinking’ may be more fashionable, more so since the covid pandemic saw a move to on-pavement dining, ‘public drinking’ does mean ‘substantial quantities of broken glass in the street at night’ around Pentonville and Grays Inn Road, the report to councillors noted.

What is ideal for a district, or more widely a council area or an entire city? The popularity district at one time of the evening may peter out. For example the researchers found that ‘Kentish Town stood out for having a really strong early evening offer’, around 6.30pm, only to be not busy ‘late night’. If a set of streets becomes known and attractive for one sort of activity in the NTE, such as restaurant dining around Seven Dials, to the north of Covent Garden, that may mean fewer outlets for other sorts of ‘night time activity’ such as pubs that simply offer ‘vertical drinking’. What’s the mix of premises – independents or national chains? Kilburn High Road, the start of the A5, has many ‘licensed and gambling premises’ which keep a clientele; besides ‘late night entertainment venues’. Yet the report found ‘virtually negligible CCTV evidence suggesting problems in Kilburn’, and few ‘alcohol-related call outs’ by ambulances.

In passing, the report suggested that under-recording of crime in London; the report states that ‘unless very serious’, what Camden’s CCTV captures is ‘mostly not recorded by the police because the level of the incident is too low for them to be reported’. As for public space coverage of video surveillance cameras, the report says some 1450 council or TfL highway camera locations in the borough of Camden (‘excluding those inside public buildings and car parks’). What appears to reach the police from CCTV (or the police get to hear about it otherwise) are acts of ‘violence, robbery and disorder’; while ‘a larger number of low-level incidents’ are missed by CCTV operators, or ‘not prioritised’.

Camden Town has the most incidents captured by CCTV, mainly fighting and drug dealing, ‘but this may be in part due to the high camera and operator focus in this area’. Next comes Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston (unsurprisingly, being train termini) where the mix of incidents include ‘drunken behaviour, fighting, though relatively limited drug dealing’. South of Kings Cross Station has known ‘street drinking hotspots’.

The report sums up that the ‘number of incidents recorded by CCTV that could be reasonably linked to the licensed / NTE economy is low in Camden’, a fraction of the total of almost 2,000 estimated incidents per year observed on CCTV in Camden. The sample of incidents given in the report are the stuff of urban life: a drunken homeless man refusing to leave a betting shop; women fighting; men fighting; ‘20 drunk males seen throwing bottles and rubbish’ on a street; a large fight on a street (‘Security had already broken it up’); three men ‘on electric bikes committing robberies’). Crimes or disturbances, then, may fizzle out before police get on the scene.

Officially, police recorded ‘NTE crime’ in Camden borough in 2022-23 increased by 1.2 per cent, mainly due to a larger increase in theft. The research concluded: “The fieldwork observations showed that drug use and dealing is a significant problem in Camden Town and also around Tottenham Court Road to clubgoers.” Litter ‘needs addressing’, the report added, and street urination (also captured by the council CCTV) is ‘a significant issue in both Camden Town and Kings Cross’, and elsewhere, to judge by what else is in the report. The report added that ‘public toilet provision at night in the London Borough of Camden is not sufficient to cope with the requirement’.

Photo by Mark Rowe: travelling football fans’ sticker, Euston station taxi rank.


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