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Is Cardiff Britain’s binge-drinking capital?

St Mary Street has a reputation as a binge-drinking hotspot

The image of a drunk woman staggering along St Mary’s Street, underwear around her ankles, was one many Cardiff residents would rather forget.  Unfortunately images such as these now represent perceptions of the city’s nightlife.  The Sun published this controversial photo in light of the new drinking ban on Cardiff’s streets.  The national newspaper branded Cardiff Britain’s binge-drinking capital and described its need to reclaim the streets from “late-night revellers”.

But as more schemes are established to tackle binge-drinking in the city, many believe this negative press is unfair.  The police, licensees and voluntary organisations are working together to clean up Cardiff’s streets and feel their efforts have gone unnoticed.  So does Cardiff really deserve its boozy reputation?

At a first glance, it’s not hard to see why Cardiff is known as a binge-drinking hotspot.  Polish photographer Maciej Dakowicz documented the city’s night-time antics for his Cardiff at Night project.  The results did not paint a positive picture.  Pub and club-goers were captured on camera lying unconscious, falling into rubbish and initiating fights.  Dakowicz said he had never witnessed anything like it before.

Despite these encouraging statistics, perceptions of Cardiff do not seem to have changed

However, recent statistics tell a slightly different story.  Despite the negative perceptions of the city’s nightlife, alcohol-related crime has dropped considerably in the past two years.  This bucks the national trend, which has seen no significant decline in alcohol related crime since 2006.  In Cardiff, the number of alcohol related-crimes went from 2442 incidents to just 1552 in the same period.  This is not much higher than Nottingham, a smaller city, where 1153 incidents were recorded in 2008.

Detective Sergeant Jamie Holcombe believes the media are not giving sufficient attention to these positive statistics.  “The media shows many images of local nightlife and it can be blown out of proportion,” he says.  He argues that developments such as their award-winning scheme to reduce alcohol-related crime are not widely recognised.  “I know for a fact that crime has generally decreased across the years but perception hasn’t necessarily dropped,” he explains.

Street Pastors co-ordinator Ruth Samways agrees.  She works with volunteers to provide Cardiff’s vulnerable drinkers with on-the-spot help.  But despite braving the city’s busiest streets every weekend, Ruth believes the problems have been exaggerated.  “There are plenty of other cities where binge drinking does go on,” she points out.  Furthermore, Ruth says she has noticed some encouraging changes since the launch of Street Pastors.  “The atmosphere and culture on Friday nights has changed dramatically,” she says.  “It’s a lot quieter now.”

So why has Cardiff attracted such bad press recently?  Ruth says new developments in the city may be a contributing factor:  “I think the city centre has changed. It’s got a lot more to offer people and we have a lot more visitors now.”  However, she admits that the concentration of pubs and clubs on St Mary Street creates a bad impression.  “Cardiff seems worse because it’s got the nightlife all together in one place,” she says.

Kitty Flynn's has taken action to crack down on binge-drinking

Laura Evans works on St Mary Street and agrees the area can appear out-of-control, especially with the increase in visitors to the city. As the relief manager of Kitty Flynn’s bar, she and her team have taken action to discourage binge-drinking.  “We’ve stopped happy hours and we’ve stopped serving cocktails but we can’t stop people from coming out,” she says.  Laura feels that although licensees have a duty to promote responsible drinking, the onus is also on the drinkers themselves:  “We’re doing all we can but other people have got to help us by doing what they can.”

As more schemes are introduced to crack down on binge-drinking, it remains to be seen whether drinkers will respond.   The Designated Public Place Order was passed in October to give police the power to confiscate alcohol on the streets.  The council recently launched its Don’t Serve a Drunk scheme to remind licensees of the existing law.  Keith James, group leader for Cardiff Council’s Licensing Department, believes these measures are essential to keeping Cardiff on track.  “Alcohol-related crime in the city centre has gone down year by year but we can’t rest on our laurels,” he maintains.

The DPPO aims to stop alcohol being consumed on the streets

However, the efficacy of these initiatives has been called into question.  Detective Sergeant Jamie Holcombe is unsure of how much difference the DPPO will make, as he rarely comes across people drinking on the streets.  Laura Evans believes the Don’t Serve a Drunk scheme is a useful reminder, but argues that even well-trained bar staff can find it hard to judge the situation.  “It’s difficult at the bar, especially when it’s busy, because drunk customers might get a friend to buy them a drink,” she explains.

The way forward for Cardiff is not clear and the bad press is unlikely to disappear any time soon.  Pictures of drinkers enjoying one too many will undoubtedly still be splashed across the newspapers.  However, collaboration between the police, licensees and charities does seem to be prompting changes in the city.  Perhaps this work will allow Cardiff to finally put a cork in its boozy reputation.

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