Old Sessions House licence approved in face of resident opposition

Old Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green

Licence Approved: Old Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

A controversial application to serve alcohol in a former courthouse and Masonic lodge in Clerkenwell has been approved by Islington Council.

Hospitality developer Ennismore International Management Ltd., who describe themselves on their website as “Part Developer, Part Operator, Part Creative Studio”, intends to use the top floors of the Grade II-listed Old Sessions House as their head office.

The company has secured an alcohol licence for the former dungeons of the ground floor and basement, which they hope to operate as “office refreshment areas, as well as meeting rooms and break-out areas”.

However, the application attracted letters of opposition from 33 local residents and The Friends of Clerkenwell Green Residents’ Association.

They are concerned that the arrival of Ennismore in the area could see problems with anti-social behaviour and noise exacerbated.

Simon Galic, general manager of Ennismore venue The Hoxton in Shoreditch, spoke in defence of the application: “We’re anticipating a lot of smaller events. We are not going to have large events all the time, and when we do it will be working with the community, with charities, and with on-brand clients.

“It’s what we do. We’re leaders in hospitality. The vetting process is key here. It’s management on the doors.

“We’ll have staff based on the street to shepherd human traffic. We’re really confident this can be done.

“We’re talking about dinner for 20 on a Thursday night, very low-key events. We do want to put on some guest events, charitable events for instance of say 200 or so people.

“These will not be alcohol-driven, but great events in a great space within which we want this capacity of 306.

“No members of the public could just walk through the door because that’s not what this licence would permit.

“It’s an amazing space. I think we’ve done a great job. You walk in there and think this is a great place to be.”

Islington Council’s licensing sub-committee saw councillors grill representatives from Ennismore on how they would prevent their proposed capacity of over 300 from impacting negatively on the area.

Councillors often did not give the team from Ennismore an easy ride.

Ennismore’s ‘dispersal policy’ came under the microscope, under which guests at events will only be able to leave Old Sessions House in groups of five.

Cllr Phil Graham (Lab, Bunhill) said: “I’m struggling to get my head around how it would work to only have five people leaving at one time.”

When Galic responded that people would slowly disperse throughout the evenings “as that’s just how events work”, Cllr Graham quipped: “Depends how good your event is.”

Cllr Graham also criticised the emphasis placed by Ennismore’s application on small events when the company was seeking a capacity of hundreds, accusing the team of putting up a “smokescreen”.

Barrister Sarah Le Fevre, representing Ennismore, said: “I apologise. This is not an applicant that is trying to pull the wool over this committee’s eyes.”

Representatives from the Friends of Clerkenwell Green were also present to voice their concerns on the opening of a venue 17 metres from residents’ bedroom windows.

Campaigner Leora Neidle said: “The hours of operation from morning to night far exceed other businesses nearby. Noise complaints and anti-social behaviour are growing in the area.

“The levels of noise and disturbance are unmanageable. More and more people are even looking to move away. So many of us feel under siege from the problems that already exist.”

Having conferred in private, Cllr Flora Williamson (Lab, Tollington), who chaired the sub-committee, announced that the licence would be granted, with an added condition that Ennismore hold only two large events per month, with a maximum capacity of 236 people.