Business and Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:29 pm on 29th June 2020.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 6:29 pm, 29th June 2020

It is a pleasure to follow the maiden speech of Paul Howell. He may be surprised to discover that between Sedgefield and Shoreditch there is a bigger connection than he might imagine and that we might be on the same side on tackling the issue of broadband, because my constituency, like his, has notspots, even in the heart of what some people call Tech City. So we can perhaps work together on that. I am also a supporter of relocating Government departments outside London, championing it when I was in government, so we have two points in common. In other ways we may be hammer and tongs against each other, but we can find the points of agreement, and if we disagree, let us disagree well. He was right to pay tribute to Phil Wilson and to describe him as magnanimous. Phil is a good, kind, thoughtful and wise men, and it was a real mark of the man that despite losing Sedgefield to the other party, he did not take defeat badly. It is noble of the hon. Gentleman to acknowledge that.

I want to focus on the Bill’s clauses relating to hospitality. Before doing so, I wish to stress that my borough of Hackney is very pro-enterprise. We support it to such an extent that we have more than 1,300 licensed premises in a 19 square mile borough; we are the third most densely populated borough in London, and there has been a 66% growth in the number of premises since 2006. So this is something we have been pushing, and I pay tribute to the many exciting and interesting entrepreneurs who have set up businesses. In one ward alone, Hackney Central, we have five microbreweries. So this is a great place to come to drink, party and have fun, but we have always tried to balance that, for the most part, with the needs of residents. I worry that with this Bill the balance is shifting so far one way that we will rue the day, in a few months’ time, when we see what residents have had to put up with.

I need to describe what our local residents are already putting up with. We may have had lockdown, but businesses have been able to sell off the premises in open containers, and some of my local parks, notably those without boundaries—London Fields, Well Street Common and others—have become party places. They have not just become party places for people having a responsible, quiet drink in a gathering with friends, within the social distancing rules. I am afraid to say that we are talking about people who have no regard for other people, and who have defecated and urinated in the parks, and in people’s doorways and stairwells. People are having to scrub down their front doors and remove human excrement to get out of their house cleanly. That is not acceptable, and it is not down to the shortcomings of the local authority or the police.

The volume has been so great that this has been very difficult to keep on top of. The police are receiving complaints about antisocial behaviour, with about 70 to 90 on a sunny weekend, depending on the day. The local authority noise patrols and wardens are out in force doing what they can, but they are simply outnumbered. Fines have been issued, and more than 100 of the 193 issued were to people from outside the borough, be they from south London or as far away as Bishop’s Stortford or St Albans. We welcome people to Hackney— we want people to come to support our vibrant businesses —but they need to have some personal responsibility. My fear about this Bill is that it rushes through one of the most radical changes in licensing laws in a matter of a couple of hours this evening, with a handful of Members engaged. The Bill was unveiled only on Thursday and we had until Wednesday, or until today, to make amendments—this is going very fast.

I wish to refer to a couple of clauses. Clause 3 deals with the determination of applications, with subsection (3) setting out what happens at

“the end of the public consultation period.”

The business has to put in an application to the council, and the day after that it is deemed as received. This is deemed as being the start of the public consultation. Ten days later, at the end of that period,

“the local authority may—

(a) grant a pavement licence to the applicant, or

(b) reject the application.”

Of course if there is a public concern, the application can be looked at again, but subsection (8) states:

“If the local authority does not make a determination under subsection (3) by the end of the determination period, the licence for which the application was made is deemed to be granted by the authority to the applicant.”

We are quite willing to support businesses with looking at extended licences and so on—that happens all the time in my borough. But with some 1,330 licensed premises, the pace at which this is going means that there will not be enough resources in Hackney Council, or in any council in the country unless there are few licensed premises in the area, to deal with the onslaught of licence applications.

The clause is very much in favour of business, and of course I am in favour of businesses getting support, but we need to ensure that we get a balance. The Secretary of State talked about limits—for example, a premises that has had problems or an application for an off licence refused in the past three years is not eligible, but that has not happened to many businesses. A lot of businesses will be applying for the first time because of the peculiar and difficult circumstances of covid-19.

An obligation on the business to deliver a restrained service is missing. Such a service is difficult to control because once people are spilling out of a premises on to the pavements and into car parks, it does not take much to spill further into our parks and create more of the nuisance that we have seen recently, to the real detriment of residents.

For some, this may be a dilemma, but for me it is about getting the balance between what is right for residents and what is right for business. The Bill goes far over the line to support business. Yes, it is a difficult time, but there are not enough safeguards for local councils and not enough resources. The Government need to provide the resources to councils such as mine and that of Nickie Aiken, whose constituency must have even more licensed premises than Hackney South and Shoreditch and the borough of Hackney, so that they can cope. That is difficult to do. They cannot rustle up licensing officers with the right experience in the time available. The Government also need to give powers to councils where there has been antisocial behaviour so that there is a quicker way of withdrawing a licence.

We have to get the balance right. Of course we want things to return to normal as soon and as safely as possible, but the Bill will create other problems. I am sure that the Minister does not need me to remind him that one of the challenges of becoming a Minister is the unintended consequences element of the work. A Minister makes a decision and officials say that they have checked everything, it is all great, everyone has looked at it, but there is one little bit that perhaps they have not thought through fully. That usually connects the decision to life out there in the real world. The Minister is very welcome to visit my constituency—we might even go for a socially distant drink in a responsible establishment—but the reality in my part of the world right now is not pleasant. It has become a party place and it has been very difficult, almost impossible, for the council to keep on top of.

I urge the Government to reconsider the matter and think about any safeguards, support and succour they can give local authorities. I am not a party pooper. I support enterprise and the licensed premises in Hackney, but there must be a balance. Any measure must not be to the detriment of residents who have had to put up with the fouling and bad behaviour of recent weeks and months.