Portsmouth Liberal Democrat councillor Suzy Horton never expected to spend several years owning a folder with ‘lap-dancing club’ written on it. Nor could she have predicted the twists and turns of the planning application process for establishing the club in Southsea.
‘You’re not liberal’, ‘you’re a hypocrite’ and ‘you’re a lesbian feminist’ are three things that people have said to me over the last week. I’m assuming that none of them were intended as compliments. That all these comments were in reference to a licensing application indicates the complex blend of issues that have become woven into the story of the proposal for a new lap dancing club in the former Conservative Club on Albert Road.
A city councillor’s work is always shaped by the wishes and requests of local residents. It’s ironic in this case that I have never shared my personal views on lap dancing or engaged in a moral debate about the subject. There was no need to, as the last few years of discussion have been about the practicalities of licensing objectives and material planning. Wrangles about the objectification of women, gender roles, unconscious bias, misogyny and everyday sexism had all been pushed into the shadows. But they were always conspicuous by their absence.
My main objection to this new venture was that it was, quite simply, in the wrong place. (I also happen to think that there is no such thing as a right place in this city for such a venture). A significant number of local residents and my other two ward colleagues expressed the same view and asked me to represent them. I said I would be happy to. These initial concerns were the ingredients of a campaign to prevent the opening of the club.
Here is a chronological account of the facts:
The original planning application was made in September 2014 and related to the use of the ground floor of 149 Albert Road as a drinking establishment with the lap dancing club based upstairs. This was rejected by Portsmouth City Council’s Planning Committee with reference to the local plans regarding the number of pubs and restaurants along Albert Road.
The owner of 149 Albert Road submitted a second planning application in March 2016 with a change of wording to reflect the use of the ground floor as a shop. This was, again, refused by the Planning Committee on the grounds of the detrimental effect on the character and viability of Albert Road, and the negative impact on the quality of life for local residents.
That application went to an appeal in November 2016. It was upheld and planning permission was granted based on the following conditions:
- The first floor location would have a limited physical presence on the street
- It would not operate at the same time as the majority of local businesses
- There is no reasonable evidential basis for fear
- There is no evidence of increase in sexual violence towards women
- Noise and disturbance would have limited negative impact on nearby residents
- There were no car parking concerns
I raised three concerns at both the planning application and the appeal hearings. First was the ‘vitality and viability of the retail area and the impact on regeneration’. Albert Road does, after all, have a range of small businesses, restaurants and pubs catering for families, students and young professionals.
The second problem was the proximity of the new club to schools, nurseries, family shops, a community centre and the Wedgewood Rooms. While certain operations may be legal, you may not want your children and young people to regard them as part of the essential character of an area.
Lastly, I discussed the unacceptable impact the club would have on the living conditions of local residents in the area. The opening hours (until 4am) were later than those of any other business in the area and would increase the level of ‘anti-social hours activity’ in the vicinity. In some ways, cars starting or cabs arriving in the early hours are more disturbing than pub chucking-out time. And then there was parking, always a major issue in Southsea.
None of these arguments were sufficient to convince the Regional Planning Inspector, who made her judgement about the suitability of Albert Road based on one visit during a dark, dank, November night.
After a long wait, there was a licensing hearing on Monday 5 March 2018 for 2 licences; a premises (alcohol) licence until 4am and a Sexual Entertainment Venue (SEV) licence. Whilst the two are technically different, of course there is a grey area and some question over whether in fact the owner would want to operate if he was only able to obtain one of the other. Remember he had planning permission at this point.
Again, I did a deputation, along with 14 others, and again my points were primarily about the location, albeit this time in reference to the 2 licensing objectives of ‘prevention of public nuisance’ and the ‘protection of children from harm’. The late opening hours were incommensurate with other businesses locally. Whilst Albert Road may not appear to an outsider as a residential area, that is absolutely not the case with dwellings immediately above most shop units and all parallel and side roads constituting one of the most densely populated wards in Western Europe. It could indeed, again, be argued that outside cigarette smoking and busy traffic at 4am are more disturbing than pub closure time.
The proximity of the proposed club to schools, families and, in particular the Wedgewood Rooms, where student audiences queue outside at exactly the same opening hours, raises concerns about the experiences of women, particularly young women. It seems that their welfare was secondary to the profits of the owner of the lap dancing club and the interests of a minority of his patrons.
The interesting thing about planning and licensing objections is that you are asserting what could be created and trying to prove the impact on the environment in which it will be situated. It’s frustrating when positive scenarios are presented as reliable evidence by the applicant (for example the good character of the owner and a typical punter being sober, older and discreet), yet reports demonstrating increased sexual harassment outside of clubs are dismissed as unreliable.
Equally frustrating is the overreliance on the principle of future hindsight. The hearing strongly emphasised a ‘period of probation’ as a safety net which could, apparently, mitigate the problems presented by the objectors. It was akin to saying, ‘It’s ok if this is the wrong call, because we can change it after a year’. For local residents suffering disturbances or a young woman feeling intimidated or vulnerable to abuse, the possibility of a review of the situation won’t be much consolation.
Planning and licensing are considered quasi-judicial. In this case the applicant not only had a barrister, but also an ‘expert witness’ in lap dancing venues. His name was Mr Studd; I kid you not.
In my other job as a lecturer, I tell my first year undergraduates that they will grow more aware of the interconnection of variables, the shades of grey, when analysing seemingly black and white issues. They must be mindful of the power of what is not mentioned as well as what is. These observations have applied to my own learning curve over the last three years regarding lap dancing clubs, as I have had to examine, debate and justify the best course of action, whilst maintaining my own authenticity.
It’s been a challenge to put my own personal moral views aside and to restrict my comments to the cold, factual and unemotional boundaries of planning and licensing laws and conditions, but also to focus on what is not part of a debate in order to make it part of the debate. Highlighting several facts helped to finesse my arguments: firstly, I did not wish to comment on the moral debate about lap dancing clubs. Secondly, I did not wish to comment on the existing venues in the city run by the applicant, as his conduct or reputation is irrelevant and transfer of licenses is not permissible. Finally, I did not want to assume a ‘worst case scenario’ regarding the average customer as a stereotypical drunken stag.
The outcome of all this is that last week, the applicant was issued a premises licence until 3am but not an SEV licence, the decision being informed by the Council’s own 2012 Sexual Entertainment Venue policy. It seems unlikely that the owner will open a bar on the first floor of a building with no sexual entertainment venue. Whilst he may fancy his chances at an appeal, this feels like a victory for local residents, business owners, friends, family members, campaigners and councillors who took the time to read the information, write deputations, attend meetings, spread the word, turn up to the committee meetings and hearings, and keep the faith that this was an issue worth fighting for.
Whilst I hope to finally close my ‘lap dancing club’ folder, this journey has given me valuable insights into this type of business and the impact it has on local communities. The positive messages we have received since the announcement leave me in no doubt that 149 Albert Road was definitely not the right location for such a business.