At last week’s full council meeting, the business of the licensing committee came up a couple of times and for me there were two perfect examples of how good and how bad a council can function.
The licensing committee has been consistently strong over a number of years around the council’s policy on late night drinking.
They have taken a firm line and turned down most applications for late licenses since the Government introduced the possibility of all night drinking a number of years ago.
Our licensing officers have always worked closely with licensees throughout the town to try to ensure that Hartlepool is a pleasant and safe place to have a night out.
Huge strides have been made over the last two years in particular after, it fair to say, the town centre had declined rapidly into a place that wasn’t especially pleasant.
The introduction of 24-hour drinking saw a boom of premises getting licenses to stay open until 4am in Hartlepool. In fact, at one point we had 33 late night licenses compared to Middlesborough’s one, Stockton’s two and Redcar’s one.
I’ve got to say though that this was in no way down to the council’s licensing policy or the decisions of the licensing committee, quite the opposite in fact.
Virtually all of the applications for late licenses were turned down by our licensing committee but then granted on appeal by Hartlepool magistrates.
The magistrates here are seen as a soft touch by the pub chains and the licensees and it frustrates all of us who are involved in setting our licensing policies and community safety policies according the wishes and needs of the public of the town, that all of our good work gets undone by decisions made by people who purposely exclude themselves from any partnership working with the relevant agencies across the borough.
I’m pleased that the Government are tightening up the powers that councils have to tackle problems associated with late licenses and I’m delighted that our licensing committee have agreed to bring forward the closing time of our licensed premises to 2am.
They have also taken the very sensible decision not to issue a late night levy on licensed premises, which is an option open to us, in light of the current financial climate so the licensees don’t get hit with a double whammy.
In fact, it seems that all licensees in the town are supportive of our position and it is another step in the right direction of bringing Hartlepool back as a place with a reputation for a great night out. I hope that our magistrates take note of what we are trying to do and act accordingly.
On the flip side of that, the licensing committee have reaffirmed their “no casinos” policy for Hartlepool. It even states that, if an application for a casino is lodged, it won’t even be considered whether it merits it or not.
I’m not sure if that is even allowable as I was under the impression that any application, planning or licensing, had to be objectively considered on its own merits, so it will be interesting if anyone ever decides to test this out.
That said, I’d be amazed if any casino developer would want to come and invest in our local economy given the attitude of the council.
I find it incredible that councillors won’t even entertain the possibility of a casino ever being built in Hartlepool.
It is that sort of attitude that will hold the town back and turn us into a forgotten backwater.
In this day and age, I don’t understand how anyone can turn their nose up at potential investment and new jobs before even looking at any details.
A “no casinos” policy sends out such a bad message to developers and investors from any industry that I fear for our reputation.
The explanations for this stance from councillors involved in the decision revolve around an altruistic view that the council should be protecting people from the evils of gambling and resisting a casino in the town.
If I had seen one piece of work by councillors on the dangers of gambling to the community since I’ve been here, then perhaps I could understand this stance.
However, it is quite the opposite. Hartlepool has more bookmakers per capita than anywhere else in the country, all approved by our licensing committee.
Mecca bingo have just completed a £100,000-plus refurbishment due to its success and popularity. The development was approved by the council.
Grants have been given by the council to the arcades at Seaton over the years to improve their frontage to attract more visitors.
The list goes on. This policy about no casinos is so hypocritical, it is untrue.
The truth is, if people want to gamble at any time of night or day, they will.
In fact, the Olympic Games would have never gone ahead if it wasn’t for people gambling on the National Lottery.
Gambling is so easily accessible on the internet, it would be futile for a council to even try to control it.
I am well aware of the problems that some people get themselves in with gambling but it’s no different to other addictions such as drugs or alcohol.
The council should be concentrating on what support there is for the very small minority of people who need the help.
They should not be trying to tell people how they can and can’t spend their money and they certainly shouldn’t be stopping opportunities for investment and job creation in our town.