Chris Amos of Manbar talks about why he has launched his ‘Save Manbar’ campaign, whilst Westminster Council also answer our questions.
By Patrick Cash
CHRIS AMOS, MANBAR
When did the first problems begin with Westminster Council?
When we took over 79CXR we were aware the venue has problems, with noise, with indecency in the toilets. This was one of the reasons the proposition of taking on the bar appealed to me in particular. I thought this bar is going to close down if it doesn’t get managed properly. So we reached out to Westminster City Council ourselves. We found the person in charge of the police was Jim Sollars and Premises Licensing Inspector was Francis Keegan and met up with them. We assured them we were going to do whatever it takes to work with the licencing objectives. We banned people who were messing around in the bar and we spent over £15,000 on a sound system that met the venue was envelopes in sound at a lower levels instead of being particularly loud and bought a new improved sound limiter that can not be tampered with without software and password by a sound engineer. But we had two noise complaints very close to each other from a tenant when the new system was installed. This resulted in Westminster taking us to a tribunal to defend ourselves against the noise complaints. Since then they have been like a dog with bone refusing to let go of an opportunity to close down another gay venue. At the tribunal the committee decided the best decision they could legally rule was to remove our entertainment licence allowing us to appeal and give us time to make further sound improvements working with Westminster City Council to achieve a happy ending where Manbar continues to trade with music. We enlisted a sound acoustic specialist known to them and us and he made recommendations. We took these on board, they adjusted all the frequencies, levels, calibrated speakers, adjusted sound levels around the building. Updated the limiter. Some new speakers were installed near the stage area. Quite a lot of work and time and this was all done with ears in the apartment where the resident was complaining. We all thought job done. Can’t hear anything we will be fine. Now however, Westminster are refusing to agree the job is done and neither is the resident. I have even been in the flat and heard with my own ears the noise and can barely hear a thing unless I really strain. If you open the window the noise outside is so loud cant hear a thing. Even the Westminster City Council officer was in there one time doing a reading and had to ask his counterpart downstairs “is the music on?”. So here we are all these months later unfairly heading towards a four day court appeal hearing that was never intended.
Why do you think they are targeting Manbar in this way?
This is a really good question. Because I honestly thought I was the knight in shiny armour coming to save a derelict venue was closing down and transforming it into something safe and a unique gay space in the West End. I included the art gallery, have charities nights, film screenings, work with 56 Dean Street on the Man Health scheme. I wrongly presumed Westminster City Council would breathe a sigh of relief that the venue was being rescued and in safe hands. I have walked around Leicester Square and visited venues to see how they compare to Manbar. They are a mess compared to how well behaved our customers are, indeed the gay scene in Soho is tame compared to the straight scene in the West End. Now it looks Manbar is next – we are an easy target – small independent new kid on the block. Except I don’t think they were expecting me stand up to them. But as far as I am concerned we are acting well within the law and they are saying we are creating a public nuisance and the fact is we are most certainly not. I have speculated as to why they are targeting Manbar wondering if a bigger conspiracy is at play here – I can’t help think Westminster is trying to take away late licences in the West End – similar to what happen in New York.
Have you heard of other gay bars in Soho suffering similar problems?
I am very interested to know if there are more venues experiencing problems. I have been so occupied with Manbar I am not sure. I hear bits and pieces but is hard to be sure what’s fact or fiction. But given what we have gone through I am very, very worried for other gay venues in the West End. If Westminster can go this far based on a single resident who doesn’t have a noise problem then they can come after any venue they like. That’s the scary truth about this. And I am sure they will start knocking them all off like flies, especially if Manbar doesn’t win this appeal.
How can people help the Manbar cause?
I have gone public with this because I wanted my staff to know what was going on. Know I want to create a public awareness campaign to support this ahead of the appeal. I want anyone who knows any MPs, to get them involved and use their political contacts to add pressure on the Westminster City Council to drop this persecution of Manbar. We are facing a hefty legal bill and I hope some people will show their support by contributing towards this. We have a door charge from 11pm and all this money will go towards our legal fight. I never thought this was going to escalate to this point. The tribunal told us to work with Westminster and get this all sorted amicably. Instead, even though their lower level officers were happy, senior officers in Westminster want Manbar shut down whatever it takes.
The ‘Save Manbar’ campaign can be signed at the following link: http://www.change.org/petitions/westminster-council-drop-the-noise-nuisance-case-against-manbar
After reading Chris Amos’ statements, QX sent some questions to Westminster Council regarding the matter, and publish their answers in full here.
What are Westminster Council’s reasons for the current case against Manbar?
A review by a licensing sub-committee decided to suspend Manbar’s ability to host regulated entertainment (play music) until an established problem with noise was resolved. Manbar is appealing that decision in court this week and so it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment beyond the statement we have already given:
ANDREW RALPH, WESTMINSTER CITY COUNCIL NOISE & LICENCING MANAGER:
“Anyone who has suffered a noise nuisance will know what an impact it can have on quality of life and Westminster City Council’s environmental health team takes any complaint about noise very seriously. It is certainly true that, after measures had been taken to limit noise at Manbar, our officers tested levels and found them to be acceptable. However, after we were contacted again, our officers returned to find that the noise levels were far higher and amounted to a statutory nuisance. That is not acceptable.”
Do you have any other sound issues with other venues in Soho at the moment?
In the last 12 months the Noise Team received more than 2700 complaints about noise coming from commercial premises. Each one was approached, assessed and dealt with on an independent basis.
What is Westminster Council’s official line on the gay venues and businesses of Soho? Does it have a commitment to carry on celebrating and spreading diversity?
CLLR NICKIE AIKEN, WESTMINSTER CITY COUNCIL CABINET MEMBER FOR PREMISES MANAGEMENT:
“The council has one business policy across Soho and the rest of the City of Westminster – and that’s to support and encourage success wherever it can.
There can surely be little question that Westminster City Council champions diversity in all areas. For many years, the council has actively supported the Pride festival – one of the biggest annual celebrations of LGBT culture in Europe. In June this year, the festival will be held using the council’s own licence for such events. Furthermore, we have recently worked very hard to be at the forefront of history, conducting some of Britain’s first gay marriages at Mayfair Library.”
What was the issue that Westminster Council had with rainbow flags in Soho a while back?
This was a planning issue that came up – and was resolved – 9 years ago. Anyone who wants to fly a flag – whatever the business – has to ensure that the flag has the necessary consent in advance of the flag being displayed. The guidelines that were established in 2005 appear to be working very well to this day.
We’ve heard that the Environmental Health Officer states at one point that he knocks on the door of a flat above Manbar to find two guys watching TV – in fact Chris Amos has signed statements from the guys in question saying that they were asleep and were woken up by a loud hammering at their door by said Environmental Health Officer, what does Westminster Council have to say in this respect?
Any visits by our Noise Team are likely to be presented as evidence in this week’s hearings so it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment at this stage.
What would Westminster Council want Manbar to do to move forward with this situation satisfactorily and harmoniously for all parties involved?
Very simple – to promote the licensing objectives and to ensure that the music is not played at levels that causes a public or statutory nuisance to nearby residents.
What does Westminster Council have to say against accusations that it is trying to drive ‘vertical’ (as in late-night bars and clubs where the clientele mainly stand) businesses out of Soho, and replace them with majority ‘horizontal’ businesses (where the clientele is mainly seated: theatres, restaurants, coffee shops etc.)?
It is just not true to say that Westminster City Council is trying to drive ‘vertical’ businesses out of Soho and replace them with ‘horizontal’ businesses.
Manbar is at 79 Charing Cross Road, Soho, WC2H 0NE.