BARS and clubs that open into the early hours could be forced to stump up for the cost of late night police patrols.

Under new powers granted to local authorities by the Government, the district council will be able to charge a 'late night levy' of up to £4,400 to all alcohol-serving businesses that stay open past midnight.

The annual fee - 70 per cent of which will go straight to police - is designed to make venues, rather than local taxpayers, foot the bill for additional patrols around their venues.

The remaining 30 per cent will go to the district council, to be spent on other activities to combat alcohol-related crime and disorder.

Councillors will meet next week to consider the proposals - but the district's bar owners say introducing the levy could mean the end for struggling businesses.

Robert Bell, 50, said the move would be 'another nail in the coffin' of Epping High Street, where he runs the Speakeasy bar which opens until 1am.

"We don't use the police at all. All I get from the police is 'you're no trouble, we don't mind coming out to help you'. We haven't even got bouncers," he said.

Mr Bell said bar owners were already paying 'top dollar' for alcohol and premises, adding it was unfair to penalise trouble-free bars and clubs.

"They should go by number of arrests a year and charge them per arrest," he said.

Gary Smith, owner of Billie Jeans nightclub in Epping High Street, also condemned the levy.

"I think it's outrageous. It's another stealth tax," said Mr Smith, 54.

"It could be the last straw that breaks the camel's back and puts one of us out of business.

"It's really hard at the moment. We are all struggling. We are trying to keep the High Street going."

The new powers also give the council the option to impose Early Morning Alcohol Restriction Orders (EMROs), restricting the sale of alcohol in all or part of the district for specific periods between 12am and 6am.

The tools - designed to give communities and councils the power to tackle late night problem drinking - come into force this month, but would be unlikely to be implemented until next year.

Hugh Farish, who lives in Beech Drive near Billie Jeans, said introducing the powers would make the district's streets safer.

"I think it'd do some good," said the 67-year-old.

"Anyone serving alcohol after 11pm should possibly pay an extra levy - I don't see why they should object.

"If I was running a nightclub I'd be only too pleased to have the support of the police.

"It's a bit unfair for everyone to have to pay for a police presence in Epping just wholly for the pleasure of those who want to enjoy going out."

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