HC Deb 16 November 1990 vol 180 cc873-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Having been lucky enough to win the ballot after some months of trying, I wish to raise an issue affecting part of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg). I refer to a problem which affects Kilburn high road and the streets running off it. At the end of what has been a fairly heavily political week, this is certainly not a matter of party politics and I doubt whether my hon. Friend and I will disagree about it. Certainly, the three parties on Brent council, which is a hung council, recognise that there is a major problem, and the council has recently introduced a byelaw to prevent drinking in the streets. However, I think that the real problem will be that people will cross Kilburn high road and go to my hon. Friend's constituency and continue to drink themselves silly there.

I shall begin by pointing out some appalling consequences that afflict the area and drawing on my views and the views of local residents which have been reported in the Kilburn Times, one of the papers that serve the local area. I shall refer to comments by people in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. The major force behind the drive to try to resolve the problem has been the local residents association, which has taken up the issue, and the Brondesbury community association, which has corresponded with the Department of the Environment. Sheila Shannon, speaking on behalf of the Brondesbury community association, told the Kilburn Times that Kilburn is looking seedier and seedier. It's become a mecca for the hard drinkers of north west London. In the constituency of my hon. Friend, June Perrin, chair of the Kilburn area general improvement committee, said: There are just too many drinking establishments in the area. The Camden side is quite bad, but in Brent they seem to hand out drink licences like toffees. In the past year, a vet's surgery on Willesden Lane and a gas showroom on Kilburn High Road have become pubs. This area needs more amenities for the locals, not more boozers. Mr. Lawrence Morris, the chair of the Kilburn advisory committee—once again, broadly based in my hon. Friend's constituency—has called for the establishment of a joint working party between Camden and Brent to try to combat the problems. One striking statement was by Mr. John Alexander, who runs a photo shop in Willesden lane. He describes how he has watched the number of pubs, restaurants and off-licences in the area soar and the numbers of drunks and alcoholics become an increasingly common sight in doorways. The paper states: 'You can obtain drink on Willesden Lane 24 hours a day', Mr. Alexander said. 'Willesden Lane is 600 yards long. There are 13 drink outlets on the stretch; three are pubs, five restaurants and five off licences. One of them, a wholesalers, is open 18 hours a day and keeps its doors open all night. There was a man stabbed to death outside the shop in a drunken brawl. I had my window smashed in and the doorway used to stink of urine all the time.' Other shopkeepers and residents along Willesden Lane…express grave misgivings about the advent of a late night dance and drink licence for the old Odeon cinema. One local resident is quoted as saying: On Friday and Saturday nights I don't get to sleep until four o'clock in the morning if I'm lucky. If the cinema gets a licence as well its going to be much, much worse. Those are the comments of people of all political persuasions.

I imagine that most people in London, including most Ministers, are used to driving along Kilburn high road to get to the A1 or M1, but that they seldom get off that road and experience local conditions. Although as one drives along that road, the area may appear devoid of residents, comprising only shops and pubs, immediately behind both sides of Kilburn high road there are family and residential communities. The area is incredibly densely populated. Parking is a monstrous problem. I used to live in the immediate area, in Kingsgate road which is off Quex road where it is virtually impossible to find a parking space at any time of the day. That is true all the time for both sides of Kilburn high road.

People are now attracted to what is regarded as the place in north London where one can drink for virtually 24 hours a day. People from all over north-west London are being drawn in and are concentrating in this area, which already has tremendous problems.

Many of the people who have been released from psychiatric hospitals into the so-called "care in the community" have ended up as derelicts, basically living on Kilburn high road and trying to get money from local passers-by so that they can buy their next drink. I have not seen anywhere in Britain where there is the same concentration of down-and-outs and derelicts in such a small area and on a major highway.

Another problem that has aggravated the state of affairs in that area is that many local traders have opted not to have the local authority collect their rubbish, but have failed to substitute for that by paying for their own rubbish collection. Some of the less reputable local businesses dump their shop rubbish on to the street. Once again, it is picked over by the down-and-outs and ends up being strewn throughout the area.

I have known the area since I was first selected to contest the Hampstead and Highgate constituency—nearly 15 years ago. It is visibly deteriorating much more sharply than almost anywhere else in the capital. That is one reason why I voted against the measures that were introduced a couple of years ago to liberalise Britain's drinking laws. It was not because I am a reactionary, but because I feared their impact on the area. Those fears have been proved well founded.

Another problem that has to be seen to be believed is the spin-off effect. Parking and congestion are absolutely monstrous. If I want to get from one end of Kilburn high road to the other, it is easier to get off the bus and walk the length of it, and then to catch up with the same bus half an hour later further down the road.

The time has come for everybody to say that something needs to be done. I am the first to accept that this is probably a purely local problem, which is not repeated on a similar scale anywhere else in the capital, and perhaps nowhere else in Britain. Introducing legislation will not, therefore, be an immediate priority for anybody, but there are things that we can do. The Brondesbury community association—which has the happy acronym of BRAT—wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment pointing out the problems and stressing that even at the time of writing—this was back in the summer—there were outstanding applications to change the use of a whole range of properties. Number 167 to 173 Kilburn high road, which had previously provided furniture and carpeting for local residents, was subject to a planning application to change its use into a wine bar. Number 229 Kilburn high road had previously been a cafe and restaurant, but had reopened as a pub, having gained planning permission for an enormous extension at the back, which brought it to within 8 ft of residential premises. The owners had applied for a music and dancing licence until 1 o'clock in the morning—not just once or twice a week, but every night. The major concern in the area is that the Willesden lane cinema, which has now closed, will be turned into a dance hall. It is situated on an extremely busy, dangerous and congested major traffic junction.

In the letter to the Department of the Environment, the community association expressed the two key points on which I wish to focus. One was that two years ago there was a change in the way in which these matters were dealt with. The letter states: Since the 'Use Class Order (A3) was changed some 2 years ago by the Secretary of State for the Environment, planning permission for take-aways, restaurants, wine bars and public houses are now all placed in the same category. The knock-on effect of this is that premises which are currently treated as take-aways can, overnight, turn into a pub—provided they can obtain a liquor licence. I know that for some time there has been a dispute between the parties about the severity of planning regulations, and that the Government have won three elections while being committed to trying to do what they can about changing planning legislation to encourage the maximum development of economic activity. I do not think that the impact on Kilburn could have been foreseen when the change was made, and I hope that we can reconsider the matter.

The second problem is not within the remit of the Department of the Environment, but I am sure that that Department is in contact with the Home Office. It is the question of the liquor licensing authority. Licensing in Brent seems to be substantially more liberal than in other areas and does not take account of the area's needs. There already seems to be an oversaturation of drinking premises, but that does not seem to be taken by the licensing authority as an argument against opening more.

In a generally helpful and positive reply to the assocation, Tony Blake of the development control policy division raised two or three points with which I take issue. His letter states: Development control decisions should not, however, take account of possible antisocial or criminal behaviour of customers or visitors to a particular development. In a general sense, one agrees with that, but that bold approach places an impossible social pressure on a small and densely populated residential area.

In certain cases I should like to see the Government giving guidance in a circular to say that such considerations could be made in the application of development control. The letter continued: Such considerations can nevertheless be taken into account in the content of an application for a liquor licence,…You also express concern at the greater flexibility offered to premises providing food and drink to the public by the A3 class of the Use Classes Order 1987. This class reflects trends in the modern catering trade, where many establishments (particularly 'fast food' outlets) combine restaurant and take-away facilities. It enables the catering trade to adapt to changing demands with greater certainty, in premises where the environmental nuisances such as smell, traffic and parking have already been accepted. I make it quite clear that those things have never been accepted. They are getting worse and are now becoming intolerable and a health hazard.

My final point at issue is where the letter states: Changes of use from retail use to food and drink use remain subject to planning control, and it is open to local authorities to … restrict such changes of use in more than a certain proportion of premises in a shopping area … However, the question whether any particular non-retail use is already sufficiently represented in any shopping area is a matter of commercial judgment and will not be material to a planning application. That is wrong. A few years ago there was a bipartisan approach in London when Lady Porter of Westminster council and I, together with the London boroughs, supported a change in the law about sex shops. I doubt whether Lady Porter and I could find a single nice thing to say about each other in any circumstances, but we recognised that the growth of sex shops in Westminster was completely destroying the social fabric of the area. After pressure, legislation was passed which said that that could be a consideration and there has been a dramatic decline. We must not say simply because profits can be made that a permanent alcoholic watering hole in Kilburn which serves the whole of north-west London and which the market can sustain, should be allowed to continue. I ask the Minister to consider these positive changes.

There are two other changes that have been well thought out by Gwen Molloy, who was a member of the licensing authority for some years. She has suggested that those who serve on the licensing authority and determine whether liquor licences should be granted should be drawn from the area for which they are dealing. In Brent, only four of the 20 members of the licensing authority live in the area. It is important that those who serve upon it should know and understand the problems of the area.

Gwen Molloy has suggested also that the licensing authority should consider the overall needs of the area, which means that individual licences should not be judged in isolation. It would be useful if the Government suggested that such consideration should take place in a circular or in a note of guidance to licensing authorities.

This is not a party issue. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate will be taking part in the debate. I hope that, following the debate the Government, local authorities and the local Members can meet to ascertain precisely what can be done to tackle a terrible problem.

2.45 pm
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

I should make it clear for both our sakes that, while the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and I are friends, we are not, in the terms of the House, hon. Friends. The hon. Gentleman might face more danger than I if others thought that he and I were political friends.

I agree strongly with almost everything that the hon. Member for Brent, East says. As a result of the conditions that he has described, the entire area becomes sleazy, a situation contributed to on the Camden side by the most appalling failure of the Camden authorities to clear street refuse quickly enough. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has issued a direction to Camden to re-tender the system as it is clearly in total collapse. I can understand traders who want to keep a fairly clean ship, as it were, asking private collectors to clear the rubbish because the authority will not clear it, but that is a sad state of affairs.

The Order Paper tells us that the debate is about "planning policies". An extra problem in Camden—I do not know whether it applies to Brent, and it may not—is a bad failure to deal with enforcement. It takes months to persuade the authority to follow anything up. The plea may be shortage of legal staff, but that can be easily overcome by giving a straightforward job to an outside firm of solicitors. Local residents are becoming very unhappy at the way in which people flout existing planning laws. They go ahead and hope that they will not be found out. If they are found out, it takes months to get the matter on the agenda of the planning committee and months follow thereafter before any action is taken.

I give broad support to what has been said by the hon. Member for Brent, East. I suppose that another reason why Ministers and members of the shadow Cabinet travel along Kilburn high street is that they do not wish to see the very large poster outside my headquarters stating that I am there to give advice which they would see if they used the Finchley road.

2.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Atkins)


Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Atkins

Such support gives me further strength to congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, East, (Mr. Livingstone) on winning a place in the ballot and securing the opportunity to raise what I recognise, from the manner in which he has addressed the subject, is a matter of considerable concern to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg). Although the hon. Gentleman has not been a Member of this place for as long as my hon. Friend, I know that in his former incarnation he was familiar with Brent. I know also that he speaks with great authority on these matters. I am impressed by what he has to say.

The town and country planning system exists to reconcile the need for essential development with the need to protect the amenity of a locality in the public interest. The relevant legislation requires those who determine development proposals to do so having regard to the local development plan and any other material planning considerations.

Such considerations are likely to include the appearance of the proposed development, its siting—especially its likely impact on neighbouring residential development, schools and hospitals—traffic generation, parking requirements, noise and disturbance. It would not be proper, however, for planning decisions about lawful forms of development to take into account the possibility that customers or visitors to a particular development might behave in an anti-social or criminal manner.

The planning system recognises that the use of premises for food-and-drink type activities can give rise to particular problems. That is why planning permission has to be obtained before such uses are introduced into premises which have not been used previously for that purpose. It provides a mechanism for controlling the overall number of food and drink outlets in a particular area, but once a planning permission has been granted for such a use the precise nature of the outlet should be a matter for commercial judgment.

Since 1987 the use classes order has included a food and drink use class—class A3—which covers restaurants, cafes, wine bars, public houses, take-aways and other premises used for the sale of food and drink for consumption on the premises or of hot food for consumption of the premises. The inclusion of a food and drink class reflects trends in the modern catering industry, where many of the traditional boundaries between different types of premises have broken down, for example, in fast-food outlets and pubs encouraging use by families. It enables the catering trade to adapt to changing demands with greater certainty, in premises where the environmental nuisances, such as smell, traffic and parking, have already been accepted. If the order took into account all the potential differences between broadly similar uses, it would become so detailed as to be of little practical value.

Despite what I have just said, however, we acknowledge the need to assess the overall impact of the Use Classes Order 1987 now that it has been in force for over three years. Accordingly, early this year my Department commissioned independent research into the effects of the changes which were made to the order in 1987. Amongst other things, this research will cover the impact on amenity and the environment of the food and drink use class. I expect to receive shortly the report of the research contractors.

In summary, from the perspective of land use planning, the impact on local amenity and the environment of changes of use within a particular use class is designed to be neutral. However, there are other considerations to be taken into account. The land use planning system should not seek to secure objectives available under other legislation. For example, the likelihood of any anti-social behaviour arising from the opening of a public house should properly be considered under licensing rather than under planning control. Naturally, it is for the police to take steps to prevent or curtail unlawful activities. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, the law as it relates to the granting of liquor licences is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

A local resident concerned about noise and disturbance caused by late-night entertainment can ask the local authority to attach a condition to the entertainment licence imposing an earlier closing time. Alternatively, under the Licensing Act 1964, a resident could oppose the renewal of a liquor licence or apply for its revocation at any licensing session. The hon. Gentleman's points about licences in Brent, as he well understands, are for the legal side of the Government rather than for me. The thought of having to consider an adjustment to the magistracy daunts me, so I am more than happy to leave it to other Ministers.

Greater regulation of licensed premises through the planning system would not necessarily resolve the type of problems which the hon. Gentleman has raised. As one who at the time was impressed by the need to reform the licensing laws, I take issue with him on the philosophy behind that. However, I understand only too well his concerns. Arguably, it is preferable for people wishing to enjoy a drink to have a wide choice of venue; overcrowded conditions in a limited number of outlets may well give rise to an overflow of customers on to the streets which might produce a different set of problems.

The planning system must play a positive role by facilitating where possible the provision of facilities in response to demand, as well as preventing development in particular locations where, on the basis of land use planning criteria, it is clearly inappropriate.

Local planning authorities have a key role to play in this process, not only by exercising their development control powers, but also by drawing up local plans which are relevant to the needs and characteristics of their areas, thus providing a sound framework for individual development control decisions. I understand that the London borough of Brent is preparing its unitary development plan. I am sure that the council will wish to take into account the views of local residents, and what the hon. Gentleman has said today must count strongly when it considers the planning policies to be included in that document.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Three o'clock.