Tuesday, 11 October 2011
Improving standards down at the take-away...
But I think you'd be wrong - for me, a local council's role in enforcing licensing rules is one of positively creating an urban ecosystem that balances the needs of everyone involved: visitors, residents, off-licenses, shops, pub and clubs - and, crucially, the political and philosophical priorities of elected councillors.
On Friday I was priveleged to attend a training session on the way the Licensing Act (and other relevant bits of legislation) can be used to create he local environment we want to see.
How we can seek to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence and other crime while celebrating fun and freedom? How we can maximise the social and economic benefits of a thriving night-time economy while protecting residents from noise nuisance, or protecting children from harm, for example?
Too many councillors see the licensing rules as tools to help the state intervene and ban things - to say 'no' a little more forcibly.
Balancing these complex needs can sometimes be tricky: a classic case is the recent application for extended night-time hours by a take-away food outlet in St James's Street: The Sussex Grill.
I have agreed to support their bid to open later into the night, despite the likely complaints of some residents, because I believe that longer hours for the take-away will, in the final analysis, make the area a safer, nicer place to live.
The applicants have agreed, for example, to improve their procurement practises and to use more environmentally-friendly packaging in their business.
They have agreed to hire a security guard at night, a trained individual who will be on hand at the bottom of the street, ready to intervene in any incidents of crime and disorder, as well as keeping customer noise down. Of course, by their very presence they're likely to have a deterrent effect too.
For those of you who don't know it, the business is almost of top of a bus stop serving a night bus service, the N7, a service which runs all night, and for which there seem to be people waiting (often noisily) at all hours. It seems to me that any addition to noise levels from extending the take-away's opening hours will be minimal by comparison and offset by the effect of the business - and its security guard - on noise levels already being generated by the buses and their customers.
But none of this is the clincher for me: that's the dialogue that we've managed to establish.
While the short-term environmental and social benefits are clear to me, the real potential prize comes in three parts.
Firstly, supporting a locally-owned business to protect St James's Street from further forays by the clone stores which are slowly but surely destroying the unique charm of the street: if the council said 'no' to the application and Sussex Grill was forced to close, I am prepared to bet it wouldn't be long until we saw another Sainsbury, Tesco or Starbucks moving in...
Secondly, the potential public health benefits. The dialogue that we've now established opens the door to future debate about the need to add healthier options to the Sussex Grill menu. The health and ethical procurement standards of the take-away sector can leave plenty to be desired, and if the licensing priocess alllows us 'an in' as local councillors to begin working with local businesses to improve standards in the sector, I think it's doing its job well.
And thirdly, there are the staffing issues. Staff in the take-away sector are often some of the lowest-paid, and most marginalised. I am hopeful that engagement with the Sussex Grill will encourage the business - and, crucially, others in the sector - to take part in the newly-formed Brighton and Hove Living Wage Commission, and to make the take-away food sector to new levels of ethical employment.
For too long the sector has been promoting often-unhealthy food with scant regard for the communities it serves: I really hope Brighton and Hove City Council can work more closely with the take-away trade that so dominates some areas of our city to help change that.