Crime prevention minister Norman Baker has compared Newcastle’s pubs and clubs to polluters damaging the environment.
Visiting the city after the city council became the first authority in the country to introduce a “late night levy” on alcohol-serving establishments open beyond midnight, the Lib Dem MP said it was right that the “polluters pay” principle was applied to the evening economy.
“Generally, my view is that a safer and cleaner environment city is in the interests of both the city and traders,” said Mr Baker, who praised the “bravery” of Newcastle in introducing the new fee first. “Of course I want to see a vibrant city centre but people need to enjoy themselves in a responsible way.
“I used to be environment and there was the idea of polluters paying and it’s the same here. It’s a charge, but what alternative is there – it’s licensees social duty to help in the interests of everyone. Nobody likes to go first and I guess that a lot of councils are waiting to see what happens here. But if it’s a success, as I think it may well be, then others will follow suit.”
Mr Baker said an £11bn alcohol-related health bill, both for accident and emergency services, and care for the longer-term effects of excessive drinking, showed landlords should be contributing more.
But he rejected suggestions that the amount of alcohol supermarkets sell should have seen some form of similar levy brought against them, and dismissed the argument that pubs and clubs are already paying enough.
“I don’t think business rates should pay for these things because not all rateable properties are generating anti-social behaviour in the same way that those which contribute to excessive consumption of alcohol do,” he said.
The minister’s comments drew fury from the city’s pub sector. Chair of the city’s Pubwatch scheme Damian Conway said: “We’re certainly not ‘polluting’ our environment in any way, shape or fashion. 19.2m people visited the region as tourists last year and a large proportion came because of the vibrant nightlife we have through bars, theatres, restaurants and cinemas. And that vibrant city centre generated £350m in income.
“Central government needs the 20% VAT that we pay them, alongside paying corporation tax, business rates, BID fees towards NE1 and now the late night levy. My question to the minister would be this: We pay all that, but where does it end? Would he like the shirt from my back?
“In the square mile of the city centre the daily average number of crimes is 18. That’s all day and all night. Where is the crime wave? I can’t find it.”