Central London was somewhat lacking in good cheer during this New Year with Trafalgar Square closed to merrymakers and no fireworks but the boundaries of good cheer now face major challenges during 2003.
Two major bills are coming before parliament this year in the form of the Licensing Bill and the Local Government Bill. These two pieces of legislation will have a powerful effect on central London and many other inner city areas by further entrenching the 24-hour city and all that can entail.
The Westminster area contains the largest number of licensed premises in the UK. There are still many residential areas within the borough and these tightly knit groupings have maintained a strong village identity.
People in areas such as Bayswater, Camden Town, Covent Garden, Pimlico and Soho as well as many others have strong residents’ associations and amenity societies. Many people that have lived there for many years indeed some for several generations and strongly identify with their historic district, just as would a member of a rural village.
The prospect of maintaining these areas as good places to live face mounting difficulties especially if the Licensing Bill hits the ground running. Any increase in the number of licensed premises or extension of opening hours will increase disorder and anti-social behaviour. The notion that abolishing fixed closing times will somehow transform the drinking culture and put an end to alcohol-fuelled violence is optimistic to put it mildly.
No account is being given to the adequacy of public transport or policing, as the new licensing rules are a central government proposal with limited flexibility to local authorities and local groupings.
In talking recently to a Chief Superintendent in the West End he was very worried that the concept of business improvement districts as set out in the Local Government Bill was relying too much on the comparison with New York which did not pass muster. New York has 24-hour transport and massive increases in police numbers heralded the recent fall in crime rate there central London can look forward to neither.
Yet the Bills are progressing. The people with most to benefit will be the large-scale operators in the leisure and entertainment industries, often at the expense of the smaller family-based restaurants, bars and clubs which are run by people with a genuine and long-term stake in the local community.
London has its own unique character. I know that all British cities feel they have their own proper identity which is why it is vital that local licensing laws and the power of local associations is not removed in the cause of so-called national cheer. One feels that a nightmare beckons for the good folk who give our inner cities their living heart.
I would be very pleased to hear views from any readers of the Westminster and Pimlico News as to their views about relaxing the licensing laws so please feel free to write to me:
Mark Field MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA