Fears of alcohol-fuelled violence fear are fading

Sharon Neal, Bec Cowan and Lauren Thompson, of  Maitland,  enjoy a drink in the Dockyards bar in Honeysuckle. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Sharon Neal, Bec Cowan and Lauren Thompson, of Maitland, enjoy a drink in the Dockyards bar in Honeysuckle. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

HONEYSUCKLE is the most popular, Hamilton can be dangerous. 

Newcastle West lacks identity and the perception of other late-night Newcastle precincts may not match the reality. 

But overall, the majority of respondents to the Newcastle After Dark survey believe the city has turned the corner when it comes to alcohol-related violence and can now be labelled safe, vibrant, inclusive and diverse. 

Newcastle City Council’s Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said the survey provided clear evidence that the city was safer than a decade ago. 

‘‘These are very positive results,’’ she said.

‘‘The vast majority of people have a very safe experience when they come out in the city.’’

Earlier closing times and strict liquor laws imposed in Newcastle in 2008 have been credited with a significant drop in alcohol-fuelled violence with a 2014 study finding up to 4000 assaults had been prevented in the six years since the restrictions were imposed. 

And it appears now the perception is catching up with the reality, with most respondents feeling confident they would not experience threat or harm when visiting Newcastle at night. That feeling comes despite figures for assaults in Newcastle remaining stable over the past three years. 

Cr Nelmes said it was significant that 92per cent of people who participated in the survey said they had visited Newcastle after dark.

‘‘It’s pleasing to see that people are moving about,’’ Cr Nelmes said. 

‘‘They are going between Honeysuckle and Hamilton and Newcastle East.’’

While the figures showed people were more confident about coming into the city, some diners the Herald spoke to  at Honeysuckle on Tuesday night said transport and safety remained a concern.

Lauren Thompson of  Maitland said the combination of lockout laws with a lack of cheap and safe transport options made her friends reluctant to come to Newcastle at night.

‘‘If you are from the Upper Hunter or Maitland, to go out in Newcastle means a weekend in Newcastle.’’

There needed to be  options like a shuttle bus to places out of town, she said.

Her friend Sharon Neal said better public transport to connect the bars and restaurants in the top end of town  with Honeysuckle and the west end would make Newcastle a more attractive destination. 

Cr Nelmes said it was important that the council helped provide the right mix of opportunities for those who came into the city at night. 

‘‘I think diversity is the key. People just don’t want to do one thing when they come out,’’ she said. 

‘‘We also need to make sure our public spaces are not just about paving and street furniture. They need to provide opportunities for people both during the day and the evening.’’

While similar restrictions in Sydney have spelt the end of an era for many popular venues and nightclubs, statistics provided by police show the total number of licensed premises in Newcastle has more than doubled since the reduction in trading hours was introduced.

But Cr Nelmes said still more needed to be done to reduce red tape for those wanting to set up restaurants and small bars in the city.

Honeysuckle is regarded as the city’s most popular precinct, with 71per cent of respondents saying they had visited the harbourside strip in the past 12 months. While Darby Street (63per cent), the Civic precinct (58per cent), Beaumont Street (57per cent) and Newcastle East (53per cent) were next. 

Pat Dodds, manager of The Dockyard, said the close proximity of dozens of bars and restaurants made Honeysuckle the city’s most popular destination for dinner and drinks.

‘‘Honeysuckle is really the hub for eating and drinking in the Hunter,’’ he said.

‘‘This area caters for all sorts of demographics and we think trade is only getting stronger despite the rail line being cut. 

‘‘It affected us a little bit at the start, but what we are finding is people are willing to travel for the product that this area can provide.’’

Mr Dodds said late-night restrictions required venues to close at midnight, which usually meant the area avoided any alcohol-related violence or anti-social behaviour.  The survey found 71per cent of respondents did not have a negative experience on their last visit out in Newcastle at night. While just under one in five of those surveyed experienced some sort of anti-social behaviour. They key element – the report’s four point impression of the city – indicated respondents tended to agree that Newcastle at night was safe, inclusive, diverse and vibrant. People also listed safety as their most important factor for an enjoyable night out, while a good range of venues and security were also crucial. 

In terms of having a safe night out in the city, people listed footpath lighting, good pedestrian access, frequent public transport and police presence as the main factors. The main reasons people listed for not visiting Newcastle was parking difficulties (67per cent) and safety concerns (51per cent). 

The most common initiatives to improve the city were place activation events, improved transportation options, availability of late-night meals and increase police foot patrol. 

Newcastle City Chief Inspector Dean Olsen said the general perception of respondents rang true with what police were seeing in the city’s streets and licensed venues. 

‘‘The fact that a large majority of people who go out in Newcastle are not having a negative experience is a really good thing,’’ Chief Inspector Olsen said. ‘‘Hearing words like safe, inclusive and vibrant are really positive and its a great result for the whole city.

‘‘And from a police point of view, the report has a ring of truth. You can see that vibrancy in the city and that is coming from increasing commerce and increasing activity. ‘‘I’ve been in Newcastle five years and I’ve personally seen a physically significant change in people’s behaviour while they are out at night. ‘‘The police have a role to play in that, but it appears a wide-range of people from the community are making a contribution.’’ 

He said police made it their mission to stamp out alcohol-related crime in the city.