Diamond strip bars face closure after drugs complaint

News Editor Aimee Seddon reports on next week's hearing regarding the popular student bars...

Aimee Seddon
18th June 2020
House of Smith was closed after Northumbria Police found that staff were allowing distribution of drugs on premises | Image: Valentina Egorova
Next week, a council hearing will be held to decide the fate of Madame Koo, House of Smith, and Florita’s, three popular venues amongst Newcastle University students.

The row of bars, situated on Collingwood Street in the city centre, were forced to close for six days over Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2017, following revelations that staff and promoters were involved in the supply of Class A drugs.

20 people, including promotors, doormen, a bar manager and drug dealers, were arrested for a total of over 50 years during the investigation, entitled Operation Doncaster.

In February 2018, city councillors ruled that the venues could retain their licences if they adhered to enhanced measures to prevent the supply and use of drugs, however police instigated a second licence review of the Apartment Group, which runs the bars, in February this year.

The hearing, which takes places on Tuesday 23rd June, comes following evidence of further drug use by House of Smith employees.

In submissions to the council, Chief Inspector Steve Wykes revealed that CCTV footage of four staff members taking cocaine in House of Smith’s smoking area last December had been seen by the police.

In his statement to the council, Chief Inspector Steve Wykes, who oversees policing in the city centre said: “It is apparent to me that, had the police not visited the premises, this incidence would never have been detected, reported or addressed.

“Actions of management at the venue appear to minimise this activity and even seek to avoid detection. Staff members openly suppling and taking drugs in view of customers would suggest this is a widely accepted culture amongst staff within the premises.”

He added, “This is extremely disappointing given the Operation Doncaster interventions and the faith shown in the operator by the licensing sub-committee and the responsible authorities only 24 months ago.

“I can have no confidence in licensed premises where staff members openly supply and take drugs on the licensed premises.”

The police have also compiled a list of incidents involving the bars since 2018, including the use of “lewd and sexualised promotional leaflets” to advertise a Fresher’s Week event last Autumn.

Public health boss, Eugene Milne, said there are “a very large number of public order and safety issues” which were “significantly impacting on emergency service time and the safety of people”; this includes fights and sexual assaults, as well as drug-related incidents.

However, the venues’ solicitors have commissioned two reports urging councillors to propose new measures to further deter drug use, such as extra security in the smoking area and extra toilet patrols, rather than revoking the licence.

In the Executive Report prior to the hearing, former police superintendent Andrew Bamber stated: “The licence holder takes a proactive, responsible and highly professional approach to deterring illicit drug use at the premises.”

He added that Newcastle’s Licensed Premises Drugs Protocol “already envisages circumstances where staff members are found with illicit drugs. This is not, therefore, an exceptional circumstance.”

“Further, the Protocol does not demand that a licence review is launched in every case where staff members are found with illicit drugs, let alone that revocation of the licence should be the inevitable result.”

Mr Bamber also argued that “revocation of the premises licence” due to the actions of four staff members would be “grossly disproportionate”, with all four having been dismissed and banned, and only one receiving a police caution.

In the second report, licensing consultant Darrell Butterworth, also a former police inspector, added: "It is extremely surprising, and somewhat illogical, that whilst the dealer/drug user whose actions have initiated this response received just a police caution, and the other drug users involved received no sanction whatsoever, the police are pushing for this popular venue, which unwittingly hosted the drug use, to close down and condemn its 100+ members of staff to unemployment."

In a witness statement, Debrah Dhugga, the chief operating office for Apartment Group, also argued that the company had taken “very active steps” to tackle the drug problems.

With the closing of these venues likely to cause the loss of hundreds of jobs, Ms Dhugga added: “The closure of such a large venue in the city centre will also impact on the economy generally. It is unlikely that this venue will be converted to any other use. There have been empty buildings sitting on Collingwood Street for many years.”

“In the wake of the coronavirus it is hugely important that the hospitality trade bounce back strongly to ensure staff jobs and to support all those other businesses that rely on the leisure trade.”

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