EVERY Saturday night, thousands head to Southend to drink, dance and have fun.
For most, their preparation involves no move than picking the perfect outfit, deciding where to go and arranging a taxi.
For Southend’s police, club managers, council staff and town centre volunteers, it’s a whole different story, however.
The preceding week will have been spent planning to make sure all those enjoying a night out stay safe.
Six million people a year come to the town, many attracted by its nightlife, adding to the many locals who also enjoy regular nights out.
I joined police in Southend as they prepared to deal with one such weekend night.
The night shift starts for the town’s police with a briefing in the High Street, during which patrol areas are set out and potential issues flagged up.
Crime figures for June and July showed a 48 per cent increase in incidents in Warrior Square, so Sgt Ian Hughes and I will spend a lot of time there, keeping an eye on things.
The team’s other six officers will patrol in pairs, splitting the town centre into three beats, while Sgt Hughes will act as a spare body helping out wherever he is needed.
The patrols are being funded from the Southend Business Improvement District scheme, with town centre businesses putting up £5,500 to fund extra shifts at weekends.
It means more police are out during the busiest months, June, July and August.
Sgt Hughes said: “In years gone by, every Friday and Saturday, one sergeant and six police officers were paid overtime to cover the town centre.
“It cost about £110,000 a year, and that’s what the public and clubs were accustomed to.
“Then funding stopped and the town was just being policed by the neighbourhood policing team, which was also dealing with taking people into custody and to hospital, and helping out in other areas.
“Public confidence dropped. We applied for funding from the Business Improvement District and it’s been a great help.”
As part of the regular Saturday night routine, Sgt Hughes and I visit nightclubs to find out how many customers they have inside.
At Dick de Vigne’s, in Warrior Square, and Chameleon, in Lucy Road, it’s clear to see the management and police are on very good terms.
Dick de Vigne’s manager Lisa Church, 33, said: “The relationship we have with the police is really positive. They are always involved.
“The interaction means it never feels like it’s them and us – it’s teamwork. They are a fantastic support to have in the town.
“We have our own security in-house, but it feels as if there’s been less trouble since we’ve had a constant police presence outside our doors.”
The partnership has helped Southend win Purple Flag status, a national benchmark which reassures visitors a town is safe for a night out.
With the status up for review next month, all the agencies are working harder than ever.
Along with the police and the club owners, volunteers from the Southend Street Pastor service and the SOS Bus play an important part in this.
They help revellers and homeless sleeping rough in the town centre and take some of the pressure off the police.
The SOS bus is parked at the top of the High Street every week, along with a support vehicle which ferries nonemergency patients to hospital and collects people who need to be looked after on the bus.
SOS Bus team leader Lesley Parks said: “We don’t get annoyedwhen someone is really drunk and can’t look after themselves. That’s what we’re here for, though we do more first aid than dealing with drunks.”
Sgt Hughes explained: “If Mayhem nightclub, for instance has someone who is really drunk, people from the SOS bus will come and give first aid. That’s an amazing resource for us, because looking after drunken people is massively time-consuming.
“Taxi drivers won’t take them, but we have a duty of care. We can’t just leave them.
“The SOS bus volunteers are worth their weight in gold.”
It’s not long before Ms Parks’ team is called to Warrior Square to look after a girl outside Dick De Vignes.
Later on, back in Warrior Square, Sgt Hughes defuses two situations which could have led to fights.
Alcohol is clearly a potential factor in many violent crimes in Southend, but for all that, our night is a relatively quiet one.
Three people are arrested – one on suspicion of drinkdriving, though the test comes back negative, one in Marine Parade for stealing a car, and one in Lancaster Gardens for possession of cannabis.
Sgt Hughes said: “This is a typical night. We don’t have brawl after brawl after brawl.
“I’m a fan of static policing.
At 3am, if you are a pair of officers standing in Warrior Square the chances of a dispute are minimised. It’s not rocket science.
“It’s been a battle to build up the trust with the management of the premises, so they know it’s not ‘them and us’.
“It means if something did kick off, I would have another ten friends out there, who have a relationship with me and can help. I know a lot of door staff by name and have the confidence in them if something happens.”
As the night draws to a close, police head for a kebab house in London Road, where as many as 700 people often gather for a bite before heading home.
Sgt Hughes said: “We see a lot of funny things on our nights out, but generally, it’s just drunken people being drunken people and saying flippant things.
“You can have a really good laugh with people.
“It’s that kind of friendly relationship which makes people respect us. They know if we’re strict with them it’s because they have done something serious.
“You can argue such a person shouldn’t have got that drunk in the club, but for every one or two of those, every one else will be as good as gold.”