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Joan Ruddock: I am grateful for that intervention, which fits well with what I have said to the hon. Member for Christchurch. We have to see the forest as a resource for people beyond the local area. Of course, we do not want the Forestry Commission to be a bad neighbour, and we want to talk to local people and try to convince them of what we have become convinced of through careful consideration: that the proposal will not cause the chaos and noise that the hon. Gentleman talked about when he referred to a long weekend of hell and to horror and stunned disbelief. Those are exaggerated expressions. Yes, live music causes noise, but woodland helps to absorb the noise, and sophisticated sound systems are used to minimise the risk of disturbance away from the site. The nearest homes, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are actually 1 km away from where the stage will be sited.

The hon. Gentleman talked about chaos on the roads, but people in this country travel to venues and make visits throughout the summer. Yes, roads are congested, but that is not a reason not to have one event on one weekend. There is congestion throughout the country for many reasons, and it should not be an overriding reason for saying that the concerts should not take place. From the Forestry Commission’s experience of running such events, we know that it has generally been able to clear the traffic within one hour of the event closing. As for the timing of the event, that will be a decision for the local authority.

Mr. Chope: Will the Minister give way?

Joan Ruddock: I will, but I am running out of time.

Mr. Chope: The Minister has pledged that local people will have ever greater involvement in decisions that affect their community. How is what she has said consistent with that?

Joan Ruddock: We are more than open to involving local people, and of course I will re-examine the extent to which they can be involved, but as I have said, we cannot say that the decision is only for local people to take. “Local” must mean wider than the immediate vicinity, such as the people from the cities that surround the area, who might want to come. One of the most important things that we can do—I ask the hon. Gentleman to take it seriously—is bring in the people who do not know about the forest and have not lived locally and had the benefit of seeing the trees not too distant from where they live. The Forestry Commission’s experience is that, where concerts have been held, they have brought in people who have not previously visited the forest, who may then make return visits. That is incredibly important and an added bonus.

Once the land is cleared and the facility placed there, local people will have even more opportunities to get involved and have local events. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the parish council will see that that is how we can engage people and ensure that, even if the concerts are not what they would most want on that one weekend, they will have a facility that could bring more involvement and joy to their lives and to their use of the forest throughout the year.

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Licensing Act 2003 (Durham)

4.30 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate on an issue that is so important to my constituency. I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me recently to discuss licensing issues in Durham. I found the meeting helpful and reassure him that the purpose of the debate is not necessarily to criticise the Licensing Act 2003 but to explore with him those instances in which the Act is perhaps not as effective as it could be and in which local communities are not being protected from inappropriate late licences. It is particularly an issue for Durham because the night-time economy area and local residents are in close proximity.

It might be helpful for me to start with some history of my communication on the issue with constituents and Ministers. I held an initial public meeting last year and invited my constituents to have their say on pub and club licensing in Durham. I raised many of the issues that emerged from that meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), and he agreed to visit Durham to meet local people to discuss their concerns further. He also wrote me a detailed letter in response to many of the matters raised. Some of the outstanding issues were matters for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and were referred to my hon. Friend the Minister, who also offered to meet me and respond in writing.

I am grateful to both my hon. Friends for their helpfulness and willingness to listen to the problems that we have had in Durham. It has moved us on enormously, and some issues that involve local misunderstandings about the Act have been cleared up, but four issues remain. First, local authorities need better guidance, so that they feel confident monitoring and turning down licences that prevent them from promoting the four key licensing objectives. Secondly, is the current appeals system the right one, given its many challenges for local residents? Is the system not too onerous to allow local views to be heard and adequately represented? Thirdly, is better notification needed for residents of what comes before the licensing committee for licensing determination? Fourthly, the general view is that the Act contains a presumption in favour of allowing applications.

On the first issue, Durham city centre has many late licences. I cannot state the exact number, because the city council has been unable to provide me with that information; it does not have it to hand. How can the council judge the effect of applications on the city overall if it does not monitor daily or weekly the number of late licences granted? I want to put it on record that this is not meant simply as a criticism of the council, but it clearly needs help and further guidance on how to turn down applications or operate the Act better. An example is the interpretation of the word “vicinity” in determining the effect of a licence and the area from which interested parties can be drawn. Current guidance under section 182 of the Act directs licensing committees to consider the vicinity to be about 100 m, but depending on local terrain, that can be too close. Local authorities should be able to set
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their own definition of the vicinity. The Act allows that, but the guidance directs the use of 100 m. The issue should be considered.

How can one small city cope with the extensive night-time economy, so that it does not have a negative impact on city centre residents? No one is arguing that no late licences should be given; it is merely that the licensing committee does not adequately consider or reflect in its decisions the impact on public nuisance. People are woken up late at night—or, more usually now, early in the morning—or have their doors kicked in, their cars damaged and so on. It is my view that too many 2.30 am late licenses are being granted, but I do not have the exact numbers.

It appears that more late licenses have been granted in Durham than in Westminster. Surely, that cannot be right. The local authority, Durham city council, brought in consultants—no doubt, because of the bad publicity that it has received—to consider a cumulative impact policy for the city, but I understand that they are likely to argue against the city’s adopting one. I am not sure why, although it appears that they feel that it might simply push the problem of granting licences elsewhere in the city. Again, giving local authorities more information about the matter would be helpful.

I wish to put on record that the statement of local licensing policy produced by Durham city council is good. If it were used properly, it would probably give the city reasonable protection. For example, the policy acknowledges that patrons leaving licensed premises at 2 am are likely to have an impact on residents’ sleep, and policy 8 seeks

Policy 15 states that

The problem is that those and other licensing policies are not being used sufficiently in determining licence applications. In fact, at times, it seems almost as though they are being completely ignored. What can the Government do to ensure that local policy is adhered to, given greater weight and linked specifically to the promotion of the licensing objectives? One simple modification to the 2003 Act that would give greater powers to reach decisions in keeping with local requirements would be the addition of a fifth licensing objective requiring that the granting of a licence must be consistent with locally determined policy, which must in turn reflect the local interpretation and application of the four licensing objectives.

Another issue is lap dancing. I contend that lap dancing clubs should not be licensed under the Act at all but, like sex shops, under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. I am working with the organisation Object, which seeks to achieve that end. We contend that the Licensing Act 2003 is not the appropriate measure for granting licences to lap dancing clubs. My experience of Durham in that respect highlights the Act’s weaknesses most clearly. Durham received an application for a lap dancing licence to 2.30 am for a premises called the Loft. It is located on a street that acts as the main gateway to the city, adjacent to the bus station and on a main route to
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the city centre from the railway station. It is also in close proximity to the world heritage site and city centre, across the road from a youth club and in the vicinity of three churches. Some 1,000 residents live within a 500 m radius. In the views of local people, the application contravened not only local licensing policies but a number of Government licensing objectives.

Again, the council’s licensing policy 14 appears to be helpful. It states that the council

In my submission to the council, I expressed clearly how local licensing policies 6, 8, 10, 11, 14 and 15, and no doubt others should prevent the licence from being granted. The application was heard at the beginning of August, when everyone was on holiday, and it was approved, despite policy 14 and other local policies.

Thanks to some very brave residents, including Mrs. Kirsty Thomas and Dr. and Mrs. Evans, an appeal was launched with the magistrates courts. The group of local residents had to fundraise to employ a barrister, organise meetings, gather a lot of information and co-ordinate a large number of objectors. I cannot emphasise enough to the Minister the work required from local people, staff in my office and me in preparing for that appeal. It was disproportionate to the ease with which the decision was made in the first place.

I am sure that the Minister can imagine our delight when, in December, the magistrates court found in favour of the appeal. It had concerns about the application in respect of all four licensing objectives and serious concerns with three of them. It found that there was a serious risk of exacerbating problems of crime and disorder and compelling evidence that a lap dancing club on North road would aggravate existing public nuisance problems and, in respect of the protection of children, that the club could hardly be worse sited.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I agree with what she said about the use of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 in relation to lap dancing clubs. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the fact that, in my local authority, we have controlled the number of sex shops by using that Act. The type of entertainment about which my hon. Friend has been talking should be included within the same remit.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention; that was exactly my point.

Our jubilation at winning the appeal was short-lived, because we learnt to our great sadness last week that Vimac, the company involved, has completely disregarded the views of local people and asked for permission to launch a judicial review application in the High Court. If that is granted, residents will once again be plunged into a legal process with no resources with which to argue their case. Our experience is totally at odds, therefore, with information sent to us by the Home Office in December 2007, when the Minister stated:

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In Durham, we very much feel as though we are taking on the industry.

The Minister will say that he cannot comment on individual cases. I use that dreadful example simply to demonstrate a fundamental flaw in the Licensing Act. If local authorities make a wrong decision, it is terribly onerous for local residents to put it right. The whole system needs to be looked at, so that residents and other interested parties can object to the granting of a licence without becoming involved in onerous legal challenges.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): With previous legislation under the 2003 Act, it was possible for local authorities to cover a degree of sex and nudity. Does my hon. Friend see that as a possible way forward? For instance, could secondary legislation to the 2003 Act be an alternative?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, and I am sure that that could be considered.

One possible solution would be to fund an organisation such as Planning Aid, which exists to help residents with planning licences. However, some of my constituents have suggested what might be a better way forward: in other cases where it is felt that a costly legal process is inappropriate, such as in industrial relations disputes, a tribunal system has worked well. Perhaps such a system is needed in this case.

My third point is that much better notification and advertising of licensing applications is needed, so that local people, other interested parties and responsible authorities can get adequate notice. My fourth point is that both the city council and local residents say that the 2003 Act presumes in favour of the applicant. I do not necessarily agree, but there is a problem with licences being approved where no representations are made from interested parties and responsible authorities. There is also the contention—I should like the Minister to comment on this in particular—that a licence can be granted in the absence of objections regardless of the views of the licensing committee, which creates a climate where it is presumed that the 2003 Act operates in favour of licensing applicants.

I recently outlined to the Minister the case of a bus parking in a lay-by to sell alcohol. Other similar circumstances involve areas of transient populations where representations may not be made, but where the impact of the licence might be detrimental to the wider community, so that needs to be looked at. Some of the issues that we are dealing with do not primarily relate to licensing. The city council’s decision to promote a night-time economy, at odds with the historical, spiritual and cultural heritage of the city, needs to be addressed. We need a proper plan for the city’s development that seeks to achieve a more reasonable balance between the competing uses of the city centre. He will be relieved to hear that I do not think that it is his job to do that. However, it is something that I hope that the new unitary authority for Durham will take on board.

In the meantime, however, attention needs to be paid to the four areas that I have mentioned today. I should
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be very grateful for any input that the Minister can give to resolve those issues. I am grateful to him and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, for their very active interest in the problems being experienced in Durham—it really is appreciated—but we need action, and I would be most grateful if the Minister travelled to Durham to meet a delegation so that he can see, or at least hear about, the issues in Durham and explore with us how a more sensible licensing strategy could be achieved to enable people to have a good night out in Durham, while providing better protection for local residents and the city’s heritage.

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on giving the Chamber the opportunity to discuss the impact of licensing reform in her area. I also congratulate her on the way she has looked after her constituents. I know that she has put a great deal of effort into that.

I shall answer the specific concerns my hon. Friend raises shortly, but it is important to put them into the context of the 2003 Act. Despite predictions of doom from some quarters, the Act has been successfully implemented, and the consensus among people I talk to who are using it on the ground is that it is a useful tool and working well. Of course, one of the key aims of the reform was to bring licensing decisions, particularly those relating to alcohol licences, closer to the people. I am therefore pleased that one of the key positive messages to come out of our recent evaluation of the impact of the Act was that it had delivered benefits to local democracy.

The 10 scrutiny councils appointed to help to monitor the impact felt that

Researchers at the university of Westminster found that

Of course, that does not mean that problems are not occurring. As our evaluation noted, despite some positive signs, we have yet to see the benefits of licensing reform applied consistently across England and Wales, so it is timely to hear from my hon. Friend about experiences in her area.

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