Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Twelfth Report


The Government is keen to generate an 'urban renaissance', where more people live in town and city centres. They believe centres will be more attractive and vibrant if people live where they can also work, shop and participate in leisure activities. Evening activities are a fundamental part of the urban renaissance because they extend the vitality of a town or city beyond normal working hours, making centres more attractive places to live. Most European cities have a very inclusive evening economy where people of all ages participate in a range of activities. In contrast the evening activities of British cities are not so compatible with the inclusive ideals of the urban renaissance. They centre around young people and alcohol, leading to associated problems of crime and disorder, noise and nuisance.

If the urban renaissance is to succeed, a balance needs to be found between residential amenity and a good night out. Management is the key to striking a balance. Local authorities must have a strategy for the evening economy, i.e. the period between 5 and 8 pm, and the late-night economy, after 8pm. The strategy should be informed by baseline data including information on: the numbers of licensed premises and late-night take-aways, transport availability, street cleansing programmes, environmental problems and any records of complaints. The strategy should also include an upper capacity limit, i.e. a limit on the number of people an area can cope with at different times of the day. This strategy would be used to contextualise any licensing or planning applications made.

Local authorities need to recognise the growth of the evening and late-night economies and plan accordingly. Each area will have its own issues, thus working in partnership with the relevant parties is vital. Side-effects of late-night activity growth must be planned for. For example, street urinals deal effectively with the highly offensive, yet increasing problem of street urination.

Local authorities need the planning and licensing systems to support their management of the evening and late-night economies. Some changes to the planning system would make a big difference to local authorities' ability to balance evening and late-night uses of town and city centres. The Use Classes Orders currently allow dramatic changes of use within the same class. For example, it is possible for a cinema to become a night-club without changing Use Class, but the impact on an area is very different. Another problem is premises not operating in the evening as they do in the day. Café bars, for example, may clear away chairs and tables at night. Thus instead of a relaxed café bar where people drink at a steady pace, often while eating; the premises become a jostling, crowded bar where people drink standing-up at a much faster pace. Interior planning constraints would help solve this problem. Striking the balance between a good night out for some and a good night's sleep for others is difficult, especially in regard to noise. However reviewing the Building Regulations and Noise Acts would show commitment to tackling this problem.

New licensing legislation is likely to come into force at the beginning of 2005. In contrast to existing legislation it will not prescribe the days or opening hours of licensed premises. Operators will choose the days and hours during which they want to operate and will then apply, in most cases, to the local authority for a licence. There is apprehension that this will make balancing residential and leisure activities in mixed-use areas in the evening and late at night more difficult. Residents are concerned they will not be able to provide the required evidentiary proof to object to a licence. Instead local authority licensing boards should be given power to accept residents' sworn evidence of nuisance. There are also concerns about how local authorities will deal with licence applications from premises already operating in mixed-use areas.

A successful evening and late-night economy needs a safe and secure public transport system. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy that if there is no late-night public transport there is no demand for it. Operators fear it would not be economically viable. This is not necessarily the case as Manchester's experience with provision of late-night bus services shows. Taxis and private hire provide a useful and popular method of transporting people late at night although there are not always enough to meet demand. Late-night licences and night tariffs could help encourage more drivers to work at night. The vacuum created by a lack of public transport and licensed taxis is often filled by unlicensed minicabs. These are dangerous, in terms of the risk of the vehicle and the risk to passengers, especially women. A high-profile media campaign is needed to publicise the risks, and penalties should be reviewed to ensure a sufficient deterrent.

If the urban renaissance is to be successful a wider cross-section of people must be attracted into town and city centres in the evening and at night. For this to happen perception and fear of crime must be reduced. A visible, uniformed presence from police resources, including Community Support Officers and ODPM sponsored wardens will help. As will tools such as anti-social behaviour orders, fixed penalties (which must be enforced) and engagement of licensed operators in Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships. However the impact of the measures contained in the new Licensing Act must be monitored to ensure these tools are not rendered ineffective by over-stretching of police resources.

Binge drinking characterises many late-night activities in British cities. Drinking large amounts of alcohol is an accepted cultural norm, however the mortality rate from alcohol consumption is increasing. Accident and emergency departments have also noticed a significant increase in 999 activity in the early hours of the morning. The Government is preparing a strategy on National Alcohol Harm Reduction. This provides an opportunity to launch high-profile publicity campaigns and education initiatives to change attitudes and tolerance towards binge drinking. Events which encourage binge drinking, such as happy hours, should be discouraged.

The evening and late-night economies are growing, as are the number of people now living in our town and city centres. Local authorities and Government need to take a proactive approach to balance these interests and achieve the urban renaissance we all want. Bologna in Birmingham, Madrid in Manchester, why not?

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