Thursday, 24 February 2011

The fight by Durham residents that helped force changes in lap-dancing laws

It’s good news that Hackney Council voted last month to ban any new strip/lap dancing venues. 
The local authority's clampdown derives from the 2010 Policing and Crime Act, under which councils were given greater licensing authority and removed sex establishments' rights of appeal if a licence renewal is refused.
The law was changed only after hundreds of local campaigns brought pressure to bear on politicians to change it. One of the most important - and certainly most successful was that undertaken in Durham City. Three years ago I wrote an article for the Big Issue in Wales - due to a major re-organisation taking place at that time, it was never published. So here, for the first time, is the story of those who fought and won.
Originally written in 2008

Kirsty Thomas, and husband and wife Desmond and Ann Evans, recently became the first residents in the UK since the introduction of the 2003 Licensing Act to successfully challenge plans to open a lap dancing club.

Vimac Leisure had hoped to open the club in the historic city of Durham in north-east England. The company however was forced to concede defeat in June after the High Court in London dismissed their application for a judicial review of North Durham Magistrates earlier decision to refuse its application for a new premises license.

The victory by the 3 residents and the dozens who stood alongside them in a year - long struggle should give heart to others fighting to prevent similar establishments being considered elsewhere. Success came in spite of a lack of support from organisations responsible for ensuring the public’s safety.

It is only thirteen years since the first British lap-dancing club, For Your Eyes Only, opened in 1995 in London. There are now over 300 such ‘Gentlemen’s clubs’, the numbers having doubled since 2003. In Wales there are now close to 30 such clubs. Cardiff itself has its very own ‘For Your Eyes Only’ that is open seven nights a week charging £5 before 11.00pm and £10 after and where clients enjoy continuous stage shows and can choose to additionally pay to ogle a dancer in a private booth. A topless lap dance typically costs £10; rising to £20 for fully nude.
It was Ann Evans in July 2007 who first became aware that Vimac Leisure were hoping to turn ‘The Loft’, a night club close to Durham City’s main bus station, into a table or pole dancing club. Walking through the cobbled streets of the ancient city that is dominated by the magnificent Castle and Cathedral she spotted a blue notice on the door.
“I was shocked, I immediately rang the City Council up and they confirmed my fears, but they would only let me take a look at the application in the company of a council officer. I took down notes and when I got back I wrote off a letter to register my objection. We live locally and I was concerned about the affects such a club would have on the community” said Ann Evans, a retired law lecturer.
Under the law anyone wanting to object only had 21 days to do so and   had to be ‘materially affected’ – so a resident living more than ½ a mile from the premises would have found their objections ignored. Despite this the City Council received 51 letters, all from local organisations and people including parents of children and teenagers.

The Licensing Act of 2003 established a single integrated scheme for licensing premises that are used to regulate alcohol, provide regulated entertainment or late night refreshment. Responsibility rests with local authorities. In Durham there are 11 councillors on the licensing committee, it is a regulatory committee expected to take decisions on the face of evidence and not on a political whip. Council officers who said that there were no legal reasons why the application could be refused advised them.

Although the voting figures have never been formally released it is widely rumoured that it took the casting vote of the committee’s chair to grant VIMAC a license. However perhaps conscious of the strength of local feeling restrictions were placed on the days and times when lap dancing was to be permitted – Thursday’s, Friday’s and Saturday’s between 8.00pm and 2.00pm.

In the event neither side were happy with the verdict, the objectors wanting no dancing and VIMAC wanting a lot more. The appeal was heard before Magistrates at North Durham Court in December last year, by which time the campaigners, now backed by a number of local councillors including their own County Councillor Liberal Democrat Nigel Martin and Labour Mp Roberta Blackman-Woods had formed themselves into a vocal campaigning organisation. They appear to have been backed by most local people – the local free newspaper the Durham Times publishing hundreds of letters supporting them with only two against.

Two well- attended meetings were held, at which the well-known women’s rights campaigner Julie Bindel spoke. “She had a great influence after she gave an excellent speech showing how lap dancing exploited the women” said Kirsty Thomas.

“The licensing committee had, wrongly in our view, said our objections had ‘predominantly emanated from a moral stance” said Nigel Martin “but no-one could say that at the appeal. True many people did have moral objections, but the Liberal Democrat position is that as long as these premises are regulated and properly sited then they should be allowed to get a license. What everyone agreed was that the site chosen was inappropriate”.

Anyone hoping to use moral objections to prevent a lap-dancing club is sure to be disappointed as the licensing authority has only to take into account four factors when deciding on an application. These are crime and disorder, public safety, prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm.

“I objected to the lap dancing club because it would have affected the institutions in the local vicinity such as the churches and also local residents who use that area to catch a bus. Furthermore the Shakespeare Hall community centre has a lot of classes for children and this is directly opposite The Loft. Because the sort of clients who use these clubs are sexually aroused and will be walking along the street where there are children and elderly people then I don’t think that is a good mix to create a good atmosphere where people feel free and safe” said Kirsty.

Initially the campaigners had sought to obtain legal advice from licensing specialists in the north east only to find that all of them are working for VIMAC in one form or another. In the event legal advice was provided by the Christian Legal Centre from London who provided a solicitor and a barrister who presented the case put together by the residents at court. There was an outside chance that if they lost then Desmond, Ann and Kirsty would have been left with a large legal bill. “Some people told us we’d be left penniless” laughs Desmond. 

“Our case stuck to the four points. We had hoped that some of the authorities charged with public safety would have assisted us. We worked hard to get the police behind us, some officers supported us on a personal level but when we argued that a lap dancing club was bound to bring with it additional crime and disorder the police said there was no evidence of lap dancing clubs in other parts of the country doing so. It undermined what we were saying. We also approached those charged with child protection at the County Council, but they wouldn’t get involved” says Kirsty Thomas.

“Vimac were able to make great play of our inability to get support from any responsible authority” says Ann.

Backing them however were local students. “We campaigned from the angle of the welfare and safety of the city rather than we don’t want a lap dancing club. North Road is quite a dangerous place, there are assaults on there every weekend, students tend to avoid it at night because of confrontations with locals” said Emma Carter, the education and welfare officer at Durham University Students Union.

“We decided that the main objection would be on public nuisance – people going to the bus station, that the club would be just 150 metres from the Cathedral, which is a world heritage site and that it would over the road from the community centre. We were also able to get our representatives to speak with authority about the local area, the residents who lived there, their ages and how they would be affected. No-one could say we hadn’t done our work” said Nigel Martin.

In the event the Magistrates agreed with them throwing out VIMAC’s appeal, refusing the application for a new premises licence stating the  objectors had ‘focused on the particular entertainment proposed in this specific location’ such that they have been influenced by ‘the relevance and weight of the arguments’.

Now having seen VIMAC’s application for Judicial Review fail Kirsty says hey are “absolutely delighted to have won this case on behalf of the local community.” 

They are also pleased to see that their local MP Roberta Blackman- Woods campaign to change the law to give councils the power to license lap-dancing clubs as sex encounter establishments appears to have been successful. She had argued that the very people most affected by the clubs, the residents who have to walk past them every day, needed to be considered when authorities decide whether to grant a license. Now Gerry Sutcliffe, Bradford Mp and licensing minister has stated that
"The Government is concerned about the current increase in the number of establishments which are putting on lap dancing and similar forms of adult entertainment, and we are aware that these concerns are shared by many local authorities and other stakeholders. It is clear that the protections and regulations set out in the 2003 Act and elsewhere do not go as far as some people would like to control the proliferation of lap-dancing clubs and similar establishments."

Sutcliffe has written to council leaders asking them to tell the Government what powers they want to limit the number of clubs.


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