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License for Anything

License for anythingThe Government's leap into bed with the pub and brewing companies conceived the new 'all night' licensing laws, together with a new regime to manage them. Local Councils now have a much greater role in this, and magistrates a much smaller one.

Prior to the Licensing Act 2003, applications for an alcohol license were heard as part of the judicial system by magistrates. The new arrangement sees the duty transfer to the local council, together with the introduction of licenses for take-aways wanting to open after 11pm.

However, when considering the applications, Fylde's licensing committee sees its role not as elected councillors, but as an independent body, balancing the needs of commerce and the community. This itself is another dangerous step along the road to have us managed and led (rather than represented) by those we elect. 

People living close to the nightclubs in St Annes have a dreadful time of it at weekends with the present situation. Those of us that are further away have less of a problem, but at the weekend, we still find ourselves being woken from sleep in the small hours every 15 minutes or so, as groups and individuals who have lost control of their volume (and worse) stagger home full of drink or drugs.

We now find that two of the three nightclubs want to open until 3 am or later. The Licensing Committee, trying to be fair to all (sic) adopted what they saw as a compromise position. Instead of allowing opening to 3 am every night, they restricted the 3am opening to the nights toward and at the weekend.

Yes, really.

Now, of course, the local takeaways want to open until the same sort of time. A video exists that would shock most readers. It shows the area around the takeaways at 2am being busier than the town centre on a Saturday morning. Police cars and vans thread their way through the crowds that fill the roadways.

There are two issues to be considered here. First, why any activity should  need a license, and secondly, whether St Annes needs a 'night time economy' - as opposed to say, an 'evening economy'

1. What's the Point of Licensing
The requirement to apply for any licence exists because the action to be undertaken is potentially harmful. It would otherwise not be deemed to require regulation.

Thus the principle underlying the granting of licence must be to prevent or restrict the ability of entities to cause actual harm. 

It is therefore entirely illogical to approach licensing from a liberal or permissive perspective when its role is prevention. 

The license should definitively set out what is not acceptable - and, for the good of the community, those who operate outside this parameter should cease to have license to do so. 

It therefore follows that to limit and prevent harm - and thus fulfill the objective - the authority charged with granting licenses should approach its task from neither a proactive, nor a neutral stance, but form one of negativity. 

Applicants should be required to demonstrate they are not causing actual harm when they apply for permission.

Having Councils undertake the (regulatory) role of licensing whilst, with another hat on, they undertake the (proactive) promotion of economic development , can do nothing but make the clarity of decision-making more difficult, and lead to charges of incestuous conflicts of interest, rendering the body itself trusted and respected by no-one.

2. Does St Annes Need a 'Night Time Economy'
This phrase started to be bandied about during the ill-conceived regeneration of St Annes Square. It was seen by those planning the future of the town as being a way of stimulating the local economy, and it would be a 'good thing' to get groups of people moving from pub to pub throughout the night, making the town more 'vibrant' and lively.

It did that alright.

The problem is that those who conceived this idea have no understanding of, or empathy with, the values and culture of the town. 

Worse still, those planners sold the idea to Councillors who were unable to see the consequences of what they were asked to approve. The implementation of the regeneration and the night-time economy gave rise to a public outcry.

A public meeting was called by seven respected local community and business groups, to allow residents to express their concern about the future direction in which St Annes was being driven. 

As well as hearing from speakers, the meeting was asked to complete a survey form. Each group had contributed its 2 or 3 top concerns as a statement, and 22 propositions were listed. 

People were asked to score each statement to show how strongly they agreed or disagreed with it.

In response to the postulation that "St Annes needs nightclubs that regularly stay open until 2am or 3am" 85% said they disagreed or strongly disagreed, and only 5% agreed with the statement. 10% expressed no opinion.

Assuming the 200 or so attending the meeting held views typical of other residents, it is quite clear there is little public support for nightclubs in St Annes.

So what could Fylde Council do about this?

Well, it could start by passing a resolution that it does not support the creation or development of a night time (as opposed to an evening) economy. That would cost nothing, involve almost no time to research. It would also send a formal message to would-be disturbers of the peace that they are unwelcome.

They could also support local community groups to have the nuisances defined as such and closed down.

Where a business causes a nuisance, statutory controls come into play. Most notable there are measures to regulate noise and so on. However statutory nuisance has an easy defence. 

Provided that the cause of the nuisance can show they are taking all reasonable steps to minimise (as opposed to preventing) the nuisance, no further sanction can be applied.

But there is also a common-law offence of nuisance. If found, this has no defence. It must cease. Typically, a Judge hears an application and determines whether a nuisance exists. If it does, and he so rules, the nuisance must cease, (rather than be minimised).

So the Council could support and assist community groups to take legal action not to minimise the nuisance, but to stop it.

To date, Fylde Council has consistently failed to do either.

In this it demonstrates its failure to respond to the wishes of the local community. It also demonstrates complete inconsistency of policy.

Consider this.

There was a club whose members operated sand yachts on St Annes beach. Without intending to, their activities gave rise to a situation which inadvertently cause the death of a visitor to St Annes. As a result, the Council prevented the club from carrying on its activities, and all people were prevented from using the beach for sand yachting and similar activity.

There was another club, this time a nightclub, operating in a back street in St Annes. Without intending to, their activities gave rise to a situation which inadvertently caused the death of a young man on some steps. As a result, the Council introduced a scheme to give out lollipops to those leaving the club in the small hours. 

Perhaps this is something to do with the fact that the former is a voluntary community group, and the latter supports the misguided attempts to create the Council's dream of a vibrant night-time economy.

If it expects to be respected by the community it is supposed to serve, the Council will have to re-learn that its role is to represent the views of its electorate, not the provision of business opportunity for those who damage the community in which they operate.

Dated: 5 October 2005

A report proposing that nightclubs should be made to pay for the level of policing deemed necessary by the Chief Constable can be found by following this link: Nightclubs Should Pay


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