Friday, November 23, 2007

Standing up to be counted

A new swish Spar convenience store has opened on the corner of Queen Street adjoining St John Street. A few weeks ago a notice went up on its outside window advising of an application being made to the City licensing committee for permission to sell alcohol from 8.00am until midnight - the opening hours of the store. Local social workers have frequently spoken about the problems surrounding other liquor selling stores in the city centre, and the substance abusers from nearby hostels or sleeping rough, who tend to loiter there, so this notice set alarm bells ringing in my head. Aggressive begging from passers by, fights and quite disturbing behaviour by intoxicated people in such a public place does nobody any good. Just the refusal to sell alcohol to known troublesome customers can create uproar and conflict. It's hard to control, let alone to provide help for the needy in such a setting. The City centre still lacks a suitable place where street people can get help.

With the impending demolition of the central bus station building in the New Year, I could foresee such gatherings being displaced from that area, to the street around Nye Bevan's statue, and carrying on as they do outside the station. There are still no bye-laws in Cardiff prohibiting on-street drinking or litter dropping, and the whole environment suffers despite efforts to keep it all under control. Whenever I clear litter from the various enclosed spaces surrounding the church, there are alcohol bottles with the soft drinks and fast food containers tossed over the fence. The arrival of a convenience store in the vicinity threatens to add to the mess, because so many eat on-street and throw containers away regardless.

So, I decided to lodge an objection to the application, and obtained support from all present at the Churches Together meeting last week. My letter of objection was passed on to the Police, who were also making a case for refusal, expressing their concerns about public order issues associated with booze sales at convenience stores.

The hearing took place in City Hall today.
In addition to elected members and officers, there were a dozen people attending as observers present, including, I noticed, the Leader of the Council.

After the Police presented their case I was invited to speak in support of my letter of objection. I took the opportunity to remind the committee of the city licensing policy which had recently been agreed by the Council, which recognised that a saturation point for licensed premeses in the St Mary Street area had been reached and that no new licenses should be granted. The applicant's shop lies a hundred yards outside the zone of restraint, in a place where there could be new concerns about public order, particularly in the evenings, when people arrive to go clubbing. Doesn't this undermine the principal of having a policy? I asked, going on to point out that the policy, good though it was, had been written without consulting and religious communities that might have views about alcohol abuse and the culture of debauchery that gives Cardiff such a negative image. If they had been asked, they might have proposed restraining or even reducing numbers of licenses, moving towards changing a culture which many are not proud of, which does little to promote the declared vision of a Proud Capital city.

Sure, I said more than I should, and was an embarrassment at what in the mind of many was no more than a routine hearing. But it's clear that religious communities of all kinds have been left out of the social equation, ignored by those who run the city. Maybe when the intentions of the new Equalities Act have been articulated, there will be grounds for challenging policies which disregard the ten percent of citizens who have an active religious affiliation, and calling elected representatives and officers to account legally. So much better to be able to do this, than to let the frustration and resentments of powerlessness build into a reactionary political backlash for nurturing by the extreme right.

The applicant from Spar and his lawyer defended their application reasonably, stating that they had in place all the necessary checks and balances to ensure nothing gets out of control. The store's policy is to be an up-market resort for passing trade, eliminating the poor contingent by over pricing what they sell, including their small range of 'fine wines', the list of which remains undisclosed, as do the prices. They promised there would be no cut-price promotions on bulk purchased booze. All these good intentions would keep out the riff-raff, they anticipate. Well, time will tell whether they get enough high spending custom to pay their £100k per annum rent. The shop is not very big, relatively easy to control. They seem confident of success without resorting to fast turnover special discount offers. They have 16 CCTV cameras in quite a small area - who are the looking out for? Do quality clients need to be watched so closely?

Needless to say, their license was granted. That makes five establishments in the quarter mile of Queen Street with alcohol take-away licenses, quite apart from clubs and pubs in the vicinty. I didn't really expect to succeed, but without taking part in the debate, without a measure of protest on social issues, religious communities shall continue to be marginal to the functioning of civil society. I shall be watching developments closely. No doubt the Police will be also.

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