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Licensing in Durham

Volume 660: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2019

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered licensing in Durham.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher? The Licensing Act 2003 replaced several more complex systems; and at the time, there were good reasons for introducing that legislation. A reduction in time-limited binge drinking and the staggering of leaving times to reduce public disorder were laudable aims, as was the inclusion of consideration of the impact on residents, but it is far from clear that the Act has withstood the test of time. It placed responsibility for licensing with local authorities and introduced four licensing objectives that all applicants must uphold: the protection of children from harm, the promotion of public safety, the prevention of crime and disorder, and the prevention of public nuisance. Licensing authorities were also required to produce a statement of licensing policy outlining their approach to promoting those objectives. However, even when, for a variety of reasons, the objectives are not being promoted by a local authority, the granting of licences seems to continue unabated.

I have been dealing with licensing in my constituency since 2006—just one year after the Act was implemented. I have held many public meetings on this matter, as the policy appears simply to allow more and more venues to open in what is a highly compact residential city as well as an historically important one. I have raised the matter with the council and previous Ministers on numerous occasions, but as one resident recently told me,

“the town just seems saturated with drinking”.

To give a better understanding of the scale of the problem, I should explain that in a very small area in the city centre, there are 11 establishments open until 2 am, two to 2.30 am and four to 1 am, with a further 14 between 12 am and later. However, the new norm is 2 am, as the new developments that are planned for the city centre—the Riverwalk, which has almost been delivered, and Milburngate—despite not being open yet, have been granted licences to 2 am. There are constant applications for extensions to 4 am, and we are all questioning how long it will be before some of those are granted.

Durham County Council recently consulted on its statement of licensing policy, so I held another public meeting, in March this year, as it is obvious that the problem is getting worse. It became clear during the consultation with residents that the existing policy does not uphold the four licensing objectives. The policy rightly states that licensed premises may become a source of public nuisance, generating crime and disorder problems if they are not properly managed. It even acknowledges existing issues of crime and disorder by stating that evidence suggests that late-night alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour remains a problem in parts of the county and that the effect that any such disturbance may have is

“a genuine matter to be considered when addressing the hours during which licensable activities may be undertaken.”

The publicly available crime statistics show that in Durham city, the three crimes most linked to alcohol consumption—public order offences, antisocial behaviour and violence—are clustered in two areas: North Road and Walkergate, an area that covers less than half a square kilometre. In fact, nearly 50% of reported crimes between March 2018 and February 2019 took place in those two areas. Both are saturated with bars and clubs that have late licences, and that concentration of recorded crimes is far above that for other town centres in the region.

The local authority’s current policy has simply failed to uphold public safety. In fact, the number of people leaving Walkergate and trying to get home creates such a problem that Durham County Council now closes a city centre street to traffic between 9 pm and 4 am on Friday and Saturday nights. That street is largely residential. How can that be acceptable for people who live or, heaven forbid, are trying to sleep in properties on that street?

Given the large concentration of students living in the city centre, there is a particular issue about how the licensing policy addresses their safety. Investigators are still looking into the tragic death of a student last year. However, we have no idea how, or whether at all, the council’s licensing policy will be changed to incorporate lessons learned from that investigation when it eventually reports.

“Prevention of public nuisance” is a broad term, covering among other things noise, disturbance and litter. It is clear from the feedback that I have received from residents over many years, and my own eyes and ears, that the policy is not working for the city centre. The noise created by people moving around the city in the early hours of the morning is extremely disruptive, and the condition of the marketplace, particularly on a Sunday morning, is horrendous, with large amounts of litter left uncollected and the city appearing dirty and unappealing.

The issue of public nuisance is experienced not just by those living in the immediate city centre, though. As Durham is a small city, many people make their way home on foot. The centre is surrounded by residential areas in all directions, so whichever direction in which people travel, there is disruption and noise for residents.

I do not think that the policy protects children from harm either. One message that I am consistently getting from residents and businesses is that disruption is starting earlier in the day, because of the increased number of stag and hen parties visiting Durham. In fact, Durham’s chamber of trade, in its submission to the council for the licensing review, says:

“The…aggressive, rowdy, noisy and often intimidating behaviour of afternoon binge drinkers in Durham is especially off-putting to vulnerable and younger people, parents…and children, or visitors to the city who are unprepared for the ‘wild west’ environment.”

During my most recent public meeting on this topic, the increase in rowdy behaviour during the day was raised time and again, with residents saying that it was “totally unsuitable for families”, “obscene” and “horrific” and that it often creates quite a hostile and unpleasant atmosphere.

Durham’s policy states:

“Licensing Services works almost exclusively with, through and for people.”

How is it that a policy that clearly states that has allowed Durham to become a place where people feel intimidated? Despite working on this issue for more than 10 years, I am being contacted more and more by residents for whom it is becoming unbearable. During the meeting earlier this year, one resident told me that he had taken to sleeping in the bathroom to get away from the noise. But actually, more and more residents are moving out of the city centre, and in the longer term that will be a disaster for the city. The issue is having an effect not just on residents and visitors, but on businesses. The chamber of trade goes on to say that it is having

“a demonstrably negative impact upon city centre trade and employment.”

There is of course the option of adopting a cumulative impact policy to restrict licences. However, that relies on several things, not least the willingness of the licensing authority to expend time and effort in gathering the evidence needed to adopt such a policy. Other local authorities do seem to use that option effectively, though. Cambridge City Council has put five separate such policies in place. In fact, Cambridge’s most recent policy states:

“It is evident from the decrease in crime and incidents that current initiatives”,

through the cumulative impact assessment,

“are effective and are having a positive impact.”

Cheshire West and Chester Council has also taken steps to address this problem, with a cumulative impact policy covering the centre of Chester. In fact, the policy states that

“because of the historic nature of…Chester and its population distribution, applicants for larger entertainment venues may find it easier to meet the requirements…by using areas outside the City Centre.”

However, despite many requests over the years for a specific city centre policy, huge amounts of communication from residents and evidence being submitted to it, Durham County Council has yet to introduce a single cumulative impact policy.

That leads on to my next point, which is the difficulty that residents have in engaging with the licensing system. Government guidance says that one of the aims of the Licensing Act 2003 is to encourage greater community involvement in licensing decisions. However, in Durham people are often simply unaware that such applications are being made until it is far too late to make a representation.

Some local authorities have introduced requirements for stronger community engagement, such as Lambeth Council, which requires applicants to canvass residents’ views before submitting an application, or Newcastle City Council, which allows residents to view the full details of a licensing application and comment online. In Durham, details of an application are available to view only in person, by appointment, and in one location in the whole county. How does that enable people to have a say?

These problems are exacerbated by the increasing use of temporary events notices by venues in the city centre. Existing legislation allows for a venue to apply for up to 15 TENs in a year, which has seen several venues in Durham, particularly in a cluster around Walkergate, open until 4 am. Because there are so many venues in Walkergate, that could mean many TENs in a year, with two or three a week.

What this all adds up to is a small, historic city, with a UNESCO world heritage site right at its centre, that has far too many licensed premises. Durham is not a big city like as Manchester or Birmingham, which can accommodate efforts to boost the evening economy; it is a small residential city and it needs a much better balanced licensing policy.

The statement of licensing policy that applies across a county the size of Durham does not appear to allow for the more detailed approach that is needed to address the specific issues in different communities. How can one licensing policy be adequate for rural towns and villages, as well as for a compact, saturated and busy city centre?

Just before I put some specific questions to the Minister, let me say that I am extremely proud of Durham. It is a beautiful city and I want people to come and enjoy it, whatever their age or background, but I also want residents to be able to enjoy it too. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how we can get a licensing policy that genuinely protects residents by allowing licensing hours to reflect local needs as well as visitor needs, and a licensing policy that does not put developing a night-time economy ahead of the quality of life for local residents.

We need a licensing Act that makes it easier to refuse late licensing hours and one that meets the needs of different communities. That also means reviewing the whole system of TENs and giving local people a greater say over licensing policy, not simply allowing their councillors to take on that role. Instead, there should be more thought about how local communities can have a much greater role in the licensing system, including consideration of how we can get a set of licensing policies in Durham that establishes a balance—allowing, obviously, a limited night-time economy, but also protecting the historic nature of the city and its many residents.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate. In a previous life, I had the pleasure of being shadowed by her, and I know her to be a person of great integrity who is enormously proud of the City of Durham. If, as she has said, she has worked on this issue as a constituency MP for 10 years, that is because there is clearly an issue in the city. I am sure that she speaks for many of its residents in expressing concern about the impact of the licensing regime on that beautiful place.

The hon. Lady noted, as I do, that in February 2018 the city suffered the tragic death of Olivia Burt, who died outside a club in terrible circumstances, which are the subject of an investigation at the moment. I acknowledge that and place on the record our sympathy with her family and friends following that terrible event.

The hon. Lady is probing the application of the Licensing Act 2003. Given her experience, she knows as well as I do that the system we have set up means that decisions on local licensing policy and how the law is enforced are, quite rightly, matters for local authorities and the police. It does not take too much to read between the lines of her speech and realise that, frankly, her main beef is with Durham County Council rather than with the law as it stands and the actions of the Government.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. At the end of my speech, I should perhaps have made it clear that one of my big asks is for us to try to understand how we can get Durham County Council to change its licensing policy massively during the course of the current review.

I think that was clear. I am sure that that message will get through loud and clear to the hon. Lady’s constituents, to residents and to the council through the attention that this debate will generate in her local area. The bottom line of her argument is that the current licensing policy does not comply with licensing objectives; she went through those objectives and made that argument. She also referred to other areas. She mentioned Newcastle, Cambridge, Chester and Lambeth, here in London, which are delivering, in her view, a better policy for their residents.

All that confirms my premise: that the problem in this case is not necessarily the law but the application of it. The central issue is the statement of licensing policy, which is now under consultation and review, as is required every five years. This is the moment for changing the policy and the statement, if they need to be changed, so I quite understand why the hon. Lady has brought this matter to the House.

The statement of licensing policy, which all areas are required to have, is a way to ensure that licensing authorities clearly set out their approach. If that requirement is not met, the five-year review gives a wide number of interested parties the opportunity to engage in the process of addressing shortcomings in the policy and contributing to the development of a stronger approach. I have referred to the recent consultation by Durham on its licensing policy, which I believe has now closed. Clearly, this is the opportunity to address some of the issues that have been raised today. As I have said, I am sure that the council will be aware of this debate and will listen to the hon. Lady closely.

The hon. Lady eloquently expressed some of the concerns that exist, not only among residents but in the local chamber of commerce, about the impact on the city centre. Of course she will also be aware that the night-time economy is real, valuable and important for the UK economy, although it is clearly in everyone’s interests for the industry to continue to promote responsible drinking and to educate its customers about the risks of alcohol abuse. The licensing system needs to try to strike the right balance between supporting a vibrant night-time economy and protecting the rights of residents and people’s quality of life in some of our city centres.

In relation to the Licensing Act 2003, the Government believe that measures to manage the sale and supply of alcohol, supported by strong local governance and accountability, strike the right balance. We do not see any argument for revisiting the Act, and I am not sure that is what the hon. Lady was arguing for. That Act, which is supported by detailed statutory guidance, is clear that the four licensing objectives that she went through must inform all decisions made by the licensing authority. As I said, the measures in place allow the development of vibrant night-time economies while ensuring that licensees give proper consideration to licensing objectives on the prevention of crime and disorder, the prevention of public nuisance, public safety, and the protection of children.

The 2003 Act is clear; we believe it has improved day-to-day co-ordination and co-operation within the various regulatory agencies, and between the regulators and the licensed trade. We believe that its key principles and objectives have endured, as its application in practice has proved capable of evolving and adapting to balance divergent interests. The House of Lords Select Committee that scrutinised the Act and heard evidence about it said that where the Act works, it works very well, so we believe that the measures we have in place can be effective when used appropriately. However, it is the contention of the hon. Lady that Durham County Council is not applying the Act in an appropriate way. As I said, the review and consultation on the statement of licensing policy is the key opportunity to change that.

In general, I am saying that the licensing policy of the county council needs to be massively changed, but there are two areas in which I thought the Minister might be able to help. The first is better guidance on how to ensure local people know about licensing issues and are involved with them, and the second is temporary event notices, which—as other Members have also said to me—seem to have got rather out of control.

I will certainly try to address both issues for the hon. Lady.

Late-night opening raises issues, tensions, and competing and sometimes conflicting interests between those who are out for a good time and those who want some peace. The Act abolished set licensing hours, so opening hours are now set locally. When late opening by particular premises leads to problems of crime, disorder or public nuisance, it is open to a responsible authority such as the police, the environmental health services, or any member of the public to seek a review of the premises’ licence. At review, the licensing committee may decide to amend that premises’ opening hours or to require other measures, such as door supervisors taking greater responsibility for the swift and peaceful dispersal of customers. For what it is worth, I remember visiting Newcastle last summer and going around the town centre with the police. The system that I viewed appeared to work extremely well in terms of co-ordination between the police and licensed bodies, all in the name of having a vibrant night-time economy while also protecting the interests of residents.

The hon. Lady asked me about temporary event notices, commonly known as TENs, which are intended to be a light-touch process. They allow licensable activities such as the sale of alcohol or regulated entertainment that are not authorised by a premises licence to be carried out. Licensed premises typically give a TEN to extend their hours on the occasion of an event of sporting or national significance, or when hosting a family celebration. It is worth noting that TENs are also valued by community groups, as one may be issued to allow, for example, the sale of alcohol at a fête taking place on unlicensed premises.

The Government are keen to remove unnecessary licensing burdens on businesses and other premises, to encourage economic activity and community vitality. Changes introduced by the Deregulation Act 2015 increased the number of TENs that can be held each year from 12 to 15, to give greater flexibility. In 2017, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act recommended the introduction of a system for notifying local councillors and residents about TENs. In response, we have amended our statutory guidance to ask licensing authorities to consider making their register available online, or simply to provide details of TENs received on their website.

I do not think the hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned cumulative impact assessments, but they may be relevant in the context of this debate. A CIA may be considered in areas where there is evidence to show that the number or density of licensed premises is having a cumulative impact, leading to problems that are undermining the licensing objectives. In publishing a CIA, a licensing authority is setting down a strong statement of intent about its approach to considering applications for the grant or variation of premises licences in a specified area. The CIA does not, however, change the fundamental way in which licensing decisions are made. It is therefore open to the licensing authority to grant an application when it considers it appropriate, and when the applicant can demonstrate through its operating schedule that it would not be adding to the cumulative impact. However, CIAs are tools that are available.

The hon. Lady pressed me on the issue of public engagement with the licensing system, and I absolutely understand that point. The Government wish to encourage greater community involvement in licensing decisions. It is, of course, important that local residents are given the opportunity to have their say regarding licensing decisions that may affect them. In order to have their say, they need to be aware, which is why applications for a premises licence must be advertised in the local newspaper and on a notice outside the premises for 28 days. As I have already mentioned, many local authorities also post details of applications and notices on their websites.

From time to time, there have been calls for licensing authorities to be obliged to notify all residents within a certain radius when an application for a premises licence is made. It is our view that the present arrangements are sufficient, and that such a requirement would be both costly and unnecessary. The licensing authorities are, however, required to publish a statement of licensing policy every five years. As we have discussed, that seems to be at the heart of this debate; that is the major opportunity to change policy and change how the law is enacted in Durham.

I should point out to the hon. Lady that as part of our work as a Government, we have run two phases of what is called the local alcohol action areas programme; its second phase closed in January. That programme engaged directly with 32 local areas and provided support to implement plans to tackle alcohol-related issues. It appears to have been well received, and we are considering how we can build on that foundation for the third phase of the programme. It is quite possible that Durham could offer some valuable insight in those discussions, because one of the items we are considering is how licensing works in practice, and we will be looking to engage with a number of areas. Durham may be highly relevant in that third phase.

I spoke earlier about the Licensing Act achieving the right balance between the benefits of employment, profits for business and enjoyment for the public provided by a thriving night-time economy, and the need for licensed premises to operate responsibly to ensure public safety and avoid public nuisance. The Government believe that the Act strikes the right balance. When there are problems in the night-time economy relating to late-night opening or the number or density of premises, which I think is the hon. Lady’s point, the Act provides measures that can be used to tackle them.

To come back to my central point, the actions of the county council seem to be at the heart of this debate about the appropriateness of licensing policy in Durham. Those actions are embodied in the statement of licensing policy, which is up for its five-year review. That consultation, and the county council’s response to it, seem to be the key. By securing this debate, and by presenting her argument so eloquently, forcefully and passionately, I am sure that the hon. Lady has ensured that her message—which I know represents the views of many residents in Durham—will be heard loud and clear by the local authority.

Question put and agreed to.