Cambridge City Council is about to launch a consultation on its licensing policy. The police, licensees, premises supervisors, the Campaign for Real Ale, the general public and others will be asked for their views. This morning I went to the guildhall and observed the council’s licensing committee discuss and approve the consultation plans.
- The consultation will be run between 14th June and 5th September 2010.
- I suggested the council publish responses they receive online as they get them. Councillors liked the idea but officers said it was beyond their capabilities.
- Under the City Council’s current licensing policy applications for licences to sell alcohol, even in Cumulative Impact Zones, are approved automatically if there are no objections.
I used the opportunity the council gives members of the public to address its meetings to say:
I think it is particularly worth me making a public statement here today as the public speaking slot appears to have been dropped from the agenda. I think its valuable and would like to see it kept. It’s not obvious that public speaking is permitted at this committee, because at the analogous full planning committee meetings where they’re setting policy public speaking is not permitted.
Cllr Smith, the meeting’s chair, nodded in agreement and scribbled a note (presumably reminding her to check that future agendas include a public speaking item). Public speaking at planning and licensing committees discussing individual cases is strictly regulated; but I see no reason why when considering other items of business the council’s usual public speaking rules shouldn’t apply.
I would like to make some suggestions on making consultation you are about to run more open and transparent. I’d like to see you:
- Publish responses online in real time. This would enable debate and let people respond to and build on previous responses.
- Ask the police to respond early, as soon as possible, so others can respond to the position they take.
If this doesn’t happen then consultees will be being asked to comment on the basis of an out of date police position which is being appended to the draft policy for consultation.
There is a risk that the police might respond late in the consultation process; and clearly any representation they make will be important and the committee will rightly give signifiant weight to it; but if its not proactively published then other consultees will not be able to respond to what it says.
It is good to see area committees are to be used as part of the consultation process, I would like to suggest you include the North Area Committee; I’m mentioning that as it has been excluded from some items which have been taken to other areas in the past. I would also like to suggest the licensing consultation is taken to area committee meetings where the police are present.
While I was making my public statement I took the opportunity to make some other comments on what the committee was doing:
- There is a section in the proposed Licensing policy on the city council’s green space licence. I asked if it was expanding that to address the question of if council’s licence could/should/ought be held corporately rather than by individuals and make clear what the council’s licensing policy position would be on that.
- The minutes of the Strawberry Fair licence decision are being reported to the committee; but there’s no mention of the appeal in progress. I suggested the full facts were not being reported to councillors, or the public saying: “You’re being given half a story, we’re being given half a story”. (The day’s Cambridge News carried a story suggesting the council might be trying to persuade the police to drop their appeal).
While I was commenting on Strawberry fair Cllr Boyce shook his head vigoursly. Cllr Smith the chair of licensing noted that the decision was made by a sub-committee but said: “it would be useful to know what is going on”. Cllr Boyce said that the appeal was not a matter for the full licensing committee. The Lib Dems generally defer to Cllr Boyce, who chair’s the council’s Civic Affairs Committee when he makes such pronouncements and did so again on this occasion. Councillors and the public are generally not kept well informed about the progress appeals against council planning and licensing decisions.
Cllr Smith then responded to some of the other items I had raised. She said she agreed with me that the consultation should go to all four area committees, and to meetings when the police are present if possible. Cllr Smith also said she liked the idea of posting consultation responses online in real time, but again tempered her remarks by adding another: “if possible”.
The City Council’s licensing officer Christine Allison was asked by Cllr Smith to respond to the points I had raised. The officer initially appeared unable to do so; instead making a rather irrelevant and abrupt statement of: “The consultation will run for twelve weeks and will follow the Government’s code of practice on consultations”. Cllr Smith made a face suggesting confusion and bafflement. The officer tried again, this time telling the committee: “the consultation will go out to everyone, including the police, for twelve weeks”. Perhaps what she was trying to get across was that it would be inappropriate in her view for the councillors to ask the police to respond as soon as possible, but she didn’t make that clear.
The licensing officer then turned to the Cumulative Impact Zones; noting that they would be likely to be the key area of public interest in any police response. She said that the police could, at any time, have requested a change to the CIZs; and reported that no requests for changes had been received. The officer went on to suggest that the consultation was likely to prompt the police to review their figures and perhaps ask for a change. The officer told the committee that in that case there would be a further, separate, consultation on the CIZ changes. Later in the meeting the officer suggested that as CIZs are an integral part of the licensing policy a further consultation on updating that would also have to be run if the CIZs were changed (a huge amount of inefficient bureaucracy, which does nothing to aid the transparency and accessibility of the process.)
Still apparently unable to grasp the suggestion of putting responses online as they were received the officer Christine Allison firmly told the committee that the council would: “look at all the responses at the end of the twelve weeks” implying I thought that she was unwilling to do anything with them before that time.
The officer then reported the dates on which the consultation would be taken to the area committees. She gave this as a list of dates without specifying which committee would be on which date. Using the council’s published calendar I have expanded these to:
- 17th June East Area Committee
- 24th June West Central Area Committee
- 8th July South Area Committee
- 15th July North Area Committee
The licensing officer then told the committee that generally in the past when she had made such presentations to the area committees the police had been there. Cllr Boyce told her that as the police were attending the North Area committee on Thursday 10th June and attended every other committee they would not be there on the 15th of July. Cllr Smith repeated her view that it would be good for the consultation to be taken to meetings at which the police were to be present; but the officer appeared unwilling to adapt to the councillors’ desires.
Apparently frustrated by my, and the councillor’s scrutiny of her plans for running the consultation officer Christine Allison then appeared to make an argument that the consultation wasn’t really needed anyway. She said that: “nothing substantive has changed” in the licensing policy and all that was being done was updating it in response to changes in legislation. She appeared to be missing the point that while nothing substantial had changed in her draft – the public and consultees might raise issues and suggestions which would prompt changes. If there really was no point in running the consultation (other than the legal requirement to do so) then why councillors’, the police, and the public’s time at the expensive area committees’ is to be spent on it ought to have been questioned.
Cllr Stuart addressed the committee commenting on my idea of asking the police to respond in a timely manner to enable their response to be debated as part of the consultation. She expressed doubts as to if the police would be able or willing to do that, but said that wasn’t a reason for the council not to ask. Cllr Stuart didn’t appear to have high hopes for a useful contribution coming from the police saying that “police consultation responses tend to be written by their lawyers and not by police”, but said that making their views known had the potential to: “launch debate off”.
While making her remarks Cllr Stuart had suggested the police would be unlikely to be willing to participate in a debate. Green Councillor Adam Pogonowski explained that my suggestion had not been for the police to debate, but simply to post responses online as they came in, enabling others to respond to them. Cllr Colin Rosenstiel also took the opportunity to restate the idea saying:
It’s about informing people, the suggestion is to post online what we’ve got when we’ve got it.
Labour’s Cllr Benstead said that while my proposal would be an aggressive move to more openness it was getting too close to the start date of the upcoming consultation to start it. He said he didn’t want: “Consultation by blog”, and mooted the idea of a “consultation on the consultation process for the future.”
Cllr Smith addressed the meeting again, saying that the Government Code of Practice was all well and good, but didn’t go far enough. She said that often central Government, even when her party is in Government, doesn’t do consultation as well as it could. She said there were lots of possibilities to do consultations more effectively online. She said that “consultation by blog” with people actively debating on the council’s website would no doubt be beyond the resources of the council which would be unable to moderate such activity. She pointed out though that publishing responses from bodies like the police on the council’s website when they were received so that others can discuss and respond to them (wherever those discussions take place – on blogs or elsewhere) was likely to be achievable. She suggested that if the licensing committee proves this is useful it is something which could be suggested to the rest of the council. Catching herself, Cllr Smith added:
Uploading documents might sound simple to some of us, but it may be outside of the council’s IT capabilities.
Cllr Smith then asked if any committee members disagreed with asking council officers to look to see if it would be possible to publish consultation responses online as they were received. No members of the committee indicated any disagreement and Cllr Smith turned to the officers to say:
We would like it done, if possible.
Councillors then turned to other matters relating to the consultation. Cllr Benstead asked if councillors were able to respond themselves – suggesting that they had not been allowed to in the past. The licensing officer told the committee councillors would be invited to respond to the consultation as they were “included as interested parties”.
Cllr Benstead appeared concerned by the officers’ suggestion that the new licensing policy was being rushed through. He pointed out that the deadline of an October 2010 full council to get the policy in place for January 2011 wasn’t in fact a hard deadline as if required a special full council could be arranged later in the year. Cllr Benstead said that such an option should be considered if interesting items are raised by the consultation. Cllr Benstead stressed how important getting the policy right was, and ensuring it was defensible.
Despite licensing officer Christine Allison having repeatedly said: “the timetable is tight” she assured Cllr Benstead and the committee that the process is “not being rushed in any way”.
In response to Cllr Benstead’s comment about getting the policy right, and ensuring it was defensible the officer said that in previous years a “legal barrister” had reviewed the final draft of the policy and this was something which could be done again this year. Cllr Smith asked the officer if there was such a thing as an “illegal barrister”.
Still hostile to the idea of publishing consultation responses as they were received the officer again returned to that point before she finished speaking, this time claiming there would be “Data Protection Issues”.
Cllr Pogonowski had been waiting to speak since the committee had agreed to ask the officers to place the consultation responses online “if possible”; he expressed astonishment that there would be any question about if something so straightforward would be possible; saying even paper responses could easily be scanned.
Cllr Smith replied in an exasperated tone, perhaps expressing a hint of dismay at the quality of staff the council recruits saying:
Yes, but we need people able to do that
Cllr Pogonowski then turned to the licensing objectives and asked if a possible outcome of the consultation would be to add new ones; such as one protecting local pubs. This was met by a chorus of “No” from other committee members; he was told that “Councillor presentations on the 17th will make that clear”. Cllr Boyce suggested that Cllr Pogonowski ought read the licensing act. I presume that Cllr Boyce was trying to say that Section 4(2) of the Licensing Act 2003 defines the Licensing objectives and the council isn’t free to add to them.
Cllr Colin Rosenstiel who had declared an interest as a member of the Campaign for Real Ale at the beginning of the meeting asked if the campaign would be one of the consultees. The officer confirmed they were already on the list. Cllr Rosenstiel suggested that they might put in a response proposing changes to the policy which would support local pubs.
Cllr Colin Rosenstiel suggested that two addresses cited in the policy were wrong. He claimed the address for the County Council’s Child Protection and Review Unit, which was given as “18-20 Signet Court, Swann’s Lane” was wrong as despite the council’s street sign there containing an apostrophe it shouldn’t be there. I think Cllr Rosenstiel may have been suggesting the “s” after the apostrophe ought go too. There was also a debate on if it should be “Lane” or “Road”, a web search indicates both are in use. The officers reported that the address had been given to them by the unit themselves, but as they were consultees and it was in the document on which they were to be asked to comment they could be expected to submit a consultation response if it was in-fact an error. (Cambridge Lib Dems use a Swann Lane postal address which might explain why they were aware of such a nuance )
Rosenstiel also spotted that a wrong postcode was given for the Cam Conservators (who it appears have to be sent copies of certain applications – presumably riverside ones?). Rosensteil said that as the office at Baits Bite Lock is out of the city it wouldn’t have a “CB4″ postcode, an suggested it might be “CB24″. The Conservator’s website confirms Rosensteil was correct when he pointed out this mistake.
Cllr Smith steered the meeting back to substantive matters by asking if section 1.5 of proposed new policy applies within a Cumulative Impact Zone. Section 1.5 states:
There is no provision for a licensing authority itself to make representations, and in the absence of any relevant representations in respect of an application, the authority is obliged to issue the licence on the terms sought.
Officers confirmed that this was the case. And despite the presumption against giving out new alcohol licenses within the zones if no objections were raised then the application would automatically be approved. Cllr Benstead cited the “Sea Tree” chip shop on Mill Road as an example of such an unopposed licence application within a CIZ.
Cllr Shah re-asked Cllr Smith’s question querying if even on Mill Road an unopposed application would be granted automatically. Officers confirmed it would be.
Cllr Benstead then drew attention to another element of the policy, section 5.10 which reads:
This special policy creates a rebuttable presumption that applications within the areas set out in paragraph 5.8 for new premises licences or club premises certificates or variations that are likely to add to the existing cumulative impact will normally be refused, if relevant representations are received about the cumulative impact on the licensing objectives, unless the applicant can demonstrate why the operation of the premises involved will not add to the cumulative impact already being experienced.
He pointed out the need for “relevant representations about the cumulative impact”; and suggested that ward councillors ought be sure they objected to licence applications they disapproved of taking care to cite “cumulative impact” so that the council’s policy could be enacted, and defended, by those involved in licensing.
Cllr Saunders, a newly elected Liberal Democrat, spoke to say he had an interest in protecting young people and he sought clarification on if an objection to a licence citing the cumulative impact on young people was considered an objection citing cumulative impact. Cllr Boyce replied telling him that “cumulative impact” applies to all the licensing objectives.
I think it is worth noting that while councillors had the draft policy infront of them, they did not have the consultation document itsself to review. It may be the consultation takes the form of simply the council publishing the draft and asking for comments, however the fact they are to follow the Government code of practice suggests perhaps that specific questions relating to the decisions to be made and possible alternatives may be included. It would have been useful for councillors to have seen the letters to be sent out to consultees so they could see what exactly they were being asked to do.
When the recommendations were considered at the end of the meeting councillors didn’t formally amend them to request the publication of the police, or other, representations online as they were received but simply reiterated that the committee would like to see this done, if possible. Licensing officer Christine Allison responded: “I really don’t think we can”; and councillors appeared to accept this. I think we need to elect stronger, councillors and encourage more capable people to work for government at all levels in the UK.
Cllr McGovern was absent, and the Lib Dem alternate Cllr Pitt was not present to replace him. Cllrs Hart and Znajek were present but said nothing; Cllrs Saunders and Shah made no substantive contributions. Cllr Smith did try her best to bring committee members to life both during this and the other item on their agenda, but none appeared willing to do anything other than simply accept, without amendment, the recommendations officers had put in front of them.
Another licensing related area where there is a lack of ease of access to information is finding out when licence applications have been made. Cambridge City Council don’t list applications on their website, instead under a heading of “How will I know if an application has been made?” the council’s website states:
The applicant has to fix a notice to the premises for 28 consecutive days and advertise the application in the local press Public Notices section.
One problem, and something which makes it harder to participate in the process, is that even when you know of a licence application; you then have to visit the council offices during working hours to view the details of application; even details of which of the council’s various reception desks you have to go to are not published. I think there is a massive opportunity to make more information available online. I may submit a consultation response suggesting such a move.
It was reported by officers that in future the legal requirement to hold these consultations might be dropped; clearly there is a lot of wasteful bureaucracy it would be easy to cut, but a lot is in the hands of the City Council. They could have asked the police to submit their views early, prior to the formal consultation period; and the use of Area Committees and the time and expense of sending licensing officers to all those is clearly in their discretion.