Thugs and drugs move in on the Gay Village

Michael Prestage on growing threats to Manchester's much-lauded nightclub scene
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The Independent Online
In the early hours, outside a row of clubs in the heart of the Gay Village quarter of Manchester, a drunk twentysomething, lager bottle in one hand and a giggling girlfriend held with the other, shouts obscenities at the regulars.

Such homophobic outbursts are becoming increasingly common in the "village", which has grown from the once-seedy wasteland of Canal Street to a warren of clubs, pubs and restaurants that demonstrate the power of the "pink pound".

Gangs of young, aggressively heterosexual men are increasingly targeting the gay community to gawp, abuse and attack. Some are seen holding hands to try to persuade doormen to let them in to clubs.

It is not just the village that is experiencing a problem with increasing violence, however. Three murders - two stabbings and one person kicked to death - in recent weeks have brought the sort of publicity that doesn't feature in lifestyle supplements, which for years have been extolling the city's nightlife.

Students at Manchester University are being given advice on staying safe at night and few will venture into the city centre alone, if at all. The National Union of Students is undertaking a survey to gauge the levels of assaults and muggings.

Meanwhile, nightclub owners warn that the gang culture that grew out of Salford and the Manchester districts of Cheetham Hill and Moss Side is back with a vengeance. Those involved are after protection money from licensed premises and control of the drugs trade.

With up to 100,000 people pouring into the area on weekend nights, Manchester as a clubland destination is worth millions of pounds to the city. The annual Mardi Gras festival in the Gay Village generated an estimated pounds 11m in four days. The city cannot afford violence, whether from drunken yobs or organised criminal gangs.

Pat Karney, a councillor who has special responsibility for the city centre, said: "The recent violence has been appalling. We do not want this city adopting the American attitude where murder and general violence is a way of life. There are groups of macho young men who think they can walk over the majority of decent people."

In its defence, the city council points to incidents in other towns and cities and claims Manchester is not unique. But as its reputation grows and the city begins to draw visitors from all over the UK and from mainland Europe, they know the current menace must be tackled.

Gay Village club owners and leading figures in the Village Charity will tomorrow meet the city council to discuss the future of the Mardi Gras festival, after criticism that it has become too big and too "straight". There is a move to bring the homosexual character back to the village.

Gerard Gudgion, of the Village Charity, fears that large businesses that have invested in the area are not ensuring that customers are homosexual or gay-tolerant, in their drive to make money. "If we're not careful, the village will be like everywhere else with hordes of testosterone- driven yobbos wandering around."

His feelings were echoed in a debate on Granada Television's Up Front: Late and Loud programme, discussing the village and the recent problems with violence. One homosexual man explained: "The problem with the village is that you don't have to be gay. I've been in Manchester now for 10 years and over the last year the village has turned and become an unsafe area for lesbians and gay men."

Clubs outside the village are also feeling the effects of the recent rise in violence. Owners are calling for the planned introduction of closed-circuit television to be speeded up and the deployment of more uniformed officers. They believe a major police initiative is needed to tackle the gangland culture.

One club owner who wished to remain anonymous said: "When there was a call to stamp out ecstasy, everybody cooperated and success was achieved quite quickly. If the police showed the same willingness to act now the gang problem could be solved."

Chief Superintendant Peter Harris, responsible for the city centre and its 400 licensed premises, believes the police's liberal approach to licensing in recent years and support for a 24-hour culture has helped play its part in the renaissance of Manchester city centre.

While police turned down a request from clubs for uniformed officers on the doors, there were mobile patrols available if needed and an undercover police team visited premises, he said. Discussions on the best way to tackle the violence were proceeding.

"Necessarily, the success of the city centre brings more people, more alcohol consumed and things do develop, but the majority of people come in to have a good time," he said.