How chaos unfolded on three weekends of woe in an affluent suburb

What went wrong in Woolton village?

That was the key question being asked at a series of dramatic council hearings this week, as councillors tried to piece together what led to chaotic, dangerous and unsavoury scenes in one of Liverpool's most affluent suburbs through the month of June.

With coronavirus lockdown restrictions keeping pubs closed, large groups of people decided to gather in Woolton Village throughout June – with many buying alcohol from local restaurants who were allowed to sell booze on a takeaway basis at the time.

What ensued was not pretty – and has led to a littany of complaints from local people and ward councillors who called licensing hearings for the businesses involved.

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There were reports of fighting, urinating, defacating and littering in the streets of the village – with the chaos building to a crescendo during Liverpool FC title winning celebrations, when police were forced to bring in a dispersal order and award themselves added powers to disrupt the crowds.

All this was of course going on during a public health pandemic, with very little social distancing taking place amongst those gathered.

Appalled local residents have described being too scared to leave their homes for fear of being abused, with some claiming men were urinating on their homes.

Vulnerable people said they couldn't contemplate leaving their homes for vital supplies at the time.

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The result of the enormous number of complaints was for four restaurants who were serving alcohol to people in the area at the time, to be called before the city council's licensing committee – with the dramatic hearings all taking place across this week.

This is what those hearings heard:

Restaurant owner hits back at 'waiter service' lockdown allegations

The first of the licensed premises to be hauled in front of the committee this week was Woolton Street restaurant and bar Nowhere.

Nowhere was one of the businesses accused of encouraging the grim scenes by serving alcohol to the gathered crowds and not doing enough to make them disperse.

Responding to a summary of those allegations, Nowhere's owner Adam Esmail Ibrahim said that he had hired staff to help with the clean up effort and said he had taken measures to try to disperse crowds outside the bar.

Mr Ibrahim said: "I had arguments a few times outside the premises on the kerb in front of it.

"I was telling them to cross the road and not stay near the premises but it's not only our responsibility to stop it while the Sainsbury's is serving alcohol."

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He pushed back forcefully against an allegation from ward councillor Barbara Mace that his staff had been offering a waiter service and taking drinks to people on trays outside and said trying to usher crowds away proved extremely difficult

He said: "It's completely wrong and dishonest to say that we did that, to be honest it's just not fair.

"I admitted that I let ladies or youngsters and the elderly to use the toilets. In your eyes that may be wrong, I understand that, but I admitted that.

Councillor Malcolm Kelly, a Liberal Democrat councillor for Woolton, said that while the pandemic was unprecedented the bar had still breached its licence for selling drinks for consumption off the premises in cups with lids as opposed to in sealed vessels.

Sergeant Craig Carmichael, who oversees licensing issues for Merseyside Police, said the force did not think it would be unreasonable to temporarily or permanently remove the bar's ability to sell alcohol for consumption off the premises.

Bar allowed punters to sink pints under patio heaters in height of coronavirus lockdown

Drinkers stood under a bar and restaurant's canopy area which had its own heating drinking pints of beer while the UK was in the lockdown, another council meeting heard this week.

This meeting focussed on the actions of the Saray Istanbul restaurant in the village.

Sergeant Craig Carmichael, who oversees licensing issues for Merseyside Police, said a series of complaints were received by the force about Saray in particular during a two week period in June.

Sergeant Carmichael said: "On the 18th June 2020 the police were driving through Woolton when they noticed people drinking alcohol within the segregated area at the front of the premises with pint glasses, so on their land.

"There were eight customers outside on arrival, all of whom were drinking under an outdoor canopy with heating that was on.

"There was a number of empty glasses on the table and inside the bar."

Sergeant Carmichael and councillors said the restaurant did react quickly once the police forced the point and said that they did immediately stop using the area, with customers told they were in breach of coronavirus regulations and moved on.

Licensing consultant Dave Horner, representing the restaurant, said the owners accepted that what they had done did not meet their responsibilities under the licensing act and said it would make the changes necessary to ensure it did not happen again.

He said: "In my experience, and I have discussed this with (licensee) Mr Sevce, the licensing act does state quite clearly that the responsibility does come back to the licence holders to be proactive in these types of situations no matter how unusual or irregular.

"However, off sales were stopped after a visit from licensing but this was late on and it could have and should have been done sooner."

Woolton lockdown drinking chaos spread into nearby woodland and put pressure on police

Drink-fuelled chaos and disorder in Woolton Village during the lockdown spread into nearby woodland stretching the resources of local police officers, councillors were also told this week.

During the licensing review hearing for Italian restaurant Crust – another of those accused of encouraging the wild scenes with alcohol sales.

While addressing the committee for Crust's review, Merseyside Police Sergeant Craig Carmichael said the disorder had put significant pressure on police resources.

He said: "We did have to put quite a large number of officers into that area because on the back of the issues in Woolton we then found that we started to have problems in Woolton Woods.

"Talking to Inspector Burkett, he believes that that was a cumulative effect of what had actually started in Woolton because of the pubs and bars opening.

"That has increased the numbers of people coming and with that has increased the ASB and the issues and the criminal damage in the area. It has has a big impact on resources."

Crust's director Paolo Cillo said he and his staff had made attempts to clean up the area in the aftermath of the drinking and put signs in place telling customers to take food and drink far away from the restaurant.

He also said that while staff made efforts to disperse people away from the restaurant, there was a limit to the amount that they could do as a premises to keep people safe.

Local councillors and police rejected that claim, saying the premises had a duty under the licensing act to take measures to prevent disorder and crime.

Manager told police he 'just wanted to have a party' as 20 shared table in restaurant during lockdown

The manager of a Woolton restaurant where police found 20 people sharing food and alcohol around one table at the height of the coronavirus lockdown told officers he "just wanted to have a party tonight".

The incident was one of a number of events which saw police visit Woolton premises Dostana during the month of June.

Even before the three weekends of disorder in the village, police reports published prior to the licensing meeting revealed that there had been previous issues with Dostana.

Police had showed up on two occasions in May, finding 20 people gathered round a table eating on the first occasion and 12 people gathered upstairs on the second.

Giving evidence to the meeting about the first incident, Sergeant Craig Carmichael said: "There were several chairs stacked against the window which obscured the view inside the premises from outside and in my opinion it is highly likely that this has been done to conceal the view of customers inside.

"Sergeant Linton pushed the tables aside to gain entry and was greeted by a man who identified himself as the owner

"The officer looked inside the restaurant and saw approximately 20 people gathered around one table enjoying a meal and drinks.

"The manager said 'they are my friends' and that 'we just thought we'd have a party tonight'."

Police officers then got the guests to leave the premises but said one member of staff said "it's not like it's even full", which Sergeant Carmichael said demonstrated a sense that they had "no concept of how dangerous this pandemic is".

A licensing consultant speaking on behalf of the applicant said restaurant owner Mubinal Hoque accepted that both incidents "should never have happened".

He said: "There is a frank admission that this was an error of judgment and it is something which should never have happened."

He said the business had operated for 30 years with no problems with the police before, including for the three years Mr Hoque has owned it.

What will happen now?

All four businesses will now face a nervous wait to hear the decisions of the council's licensing committee.

All four could receive punishments in the form of changes to their licensing conditions – which could see them barred from serving takeaway alcohol in future.

We will report on the decisions as soon as they are made.