The other disappointment of the week was Licensing Committee, which stretched through Thursday afternoon and evening.
Certainly the most high profile item was the Hackney Carriage Unmet Demand Survey. Essentially this was about the taxis you can hail on the street (Private Hire are those you have to call to book), whether the city needs more and whether disabled users are being well served. I’d received detailed emails from various associations and the GMB union about this item. It’s evident from the report that at the moment disabled customers are not being well served by taxis, and there’s general agreement amongst drivers and taxi firms that something more has to be done. A wheelchair user has to wait on average 45 minutes for a taxi (11 minutes is the average non-wheelchair user wait) and can’t pre-book with some firms or get any taxi at all during certain periods of the day.
Whilst an independent survey found that despite a 40% increase in passenger journeys, there was little unmet demand requiring additional licenses, it seemed obvious to me that allowing a continuation of the 5 new licenses a year we currently have been offering would be useful because we could continue to require the licenses to be for wheelchair cabs. This would represent only a 1% increase on the overall Hackney Carriage licenses, so not threatening business for other drivers, but would be a significant boost in wheelchair capacity each year. Sadly, except for the Greens and the LibDem member, the other parties voted this down opting for only 2 new licenses a year.
But much worse, they absolutely refused to accept amendments put forward by my Green colleague Cllr Pete West. These amendments just asked for an officer report to look into how and if we should set a percentage quota of wheelchair accessible vehicles on the books of the larger Hackney Carriage firms and also whether a condition requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles should be added to all new private hire licenses.
The Council’s consultants had estimated we need roughly 400 more wheelchair accessible cabs to eliminate the difference in waiting time. It’s going to take 200 years to get there at the rate Labour and Tories have set and they’ve refused to explore the options for which we can see widespread support for in the trade. A clear missed opportunity to eliminate a systematic inequality in a vital transport system for those with disabilities. I’m so disappointed the other party members wouldn’t support even an officer report on the path forward.
Alcohol Disorder Zones
The Committee had received a request from the St James Street Local Action Team, supported by the Kingscliffe Society, to instigate an Alcohol Disorder Zone (ADZ) in their locality. This is a new legal tool which no council has yet used, but which would result in an action plan to bring together the Council and Police in tackling alcohol related disorder. In extreme cases it could force all licensed premises in the zone to pay for services to tackle the problems.
Sadly the Police and Council licensing officers didn’t seem very keen on the idea, the legislation may have some imperfections (what doesn’t) and were wary of the negative publicity in declaring a neighbourhood a ‘disorder zone’. However support from the city’s Director of Public Health was noticeable.
Again my colleague Cllr Pete West offered an amendment. The officer recommendation was for a Council policy where only the Chief of Police would be able to request such a zone from the Council, but Cllr West’s amendment expanded that to allow Local Action Teams and constituted community groups to make such requests… which seemed to be much more inclusive. Surely local groups would be those best able to judge if they needed to get help for alcohol disorder? Some areas feel dissatisfaction with the Police, so handing the power only to the Police Chief could well exacerbate that. Sadly, once again Labour and Tories wouldn’t support this.
I put forward an amendment that we accept the St James Street LAT’s request and begin the ADZ process for their area. They had formally requested it and no policy of Police Chief only had been agreed at the time of their submission, but I’m afraid again there was no support.
While I accept that ADZs aren’t perfect, clearly the Cumulative Impact Area in the city centre isn’t enough to counter-balance the over-liberal 2003 Licensing Act which is causing chaos for my constituents.
Health Impact Assessment of Licensing
This was a very powerful report showing the devastating impact alcohol is having on our city. The graphs showing a huge growth in alcohol-related hospital admissions since the new licensing law came into force are shocking, especially given that they don’t include A&E figures!
This report was good backing for why Dr Tom Scanlon, Director of Public Health for the city, is so keen for more action. The report is vital reading and will hopefully feed into a new city-wide licensing policy next year. Another of my Green colleagues on the committee, Cllr Georgia Wrighton, proposed some amendments which we did finally manage to get agreed. These included referring the report to the Environment & Community Safety Overview & Scrutiny Committee (dreadfully long name, I know), to the Full Council and also having the Chair of the Licensing Committee write to the relevant ministers, attaching the report and asking for ‘Impact on Public Health’ to be included as a licensing objective under the Licensing Act. This would then allow residents, the NHS and council to object to licensing applications on the basis of impact on health; which currently isn’t possible.
Finally some success!
There were other reports on street trading, gambling and alcohol harm to children but little dramatic emerged from them in the committee meeting itself so I shall leave the curious to find the minutes whenever they are published.
Some very disappointing outcomes. Reflecting on why there wasn’t support from Tories and Labour, I wonder if it’s because they don’t represent the inner city wards which suffer the direct impacts of the new Licensing Act… perhaps but that doesn’t excuse their failure to support disabled people’s needs on the taxi report. I’d like to hear an explanation for that one.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention one bit of good news that emerged at the Committee… Taxi marshalls for city centre ranks will be returning from this Friday night until March next year thanks to some Home Office funding. I believe they’ll be on for the peak nights and peak ranks only, but I know they really help to free up Police resources so are very welcome.