Public Services Management: Laws lack clout on clubs: Westminster council hopes a private bill may help its struggle against the sex dens of Soho

Click to follow
THE FIRE at a cinema 'club' in north London that left nine people dead and 15 others seriously injured, many of whom jumped from the upper floors, has renewed calls for legislation that would help councils regulate or close down dangerous or unwanted premises.

Dream City was an unlicensed club, showing sex films. Legal action by Islington council and others had little effect on its activities. A fine of pounds 150 and pounds 80 costs in 1988 and another of pounds1,000 plus pounds 80 costs in 1990 were no real hardship.

The law needs to be strengthened, according to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. Westminster council believes that a private bill currently before Parliament could be a solution.

Westminster has struggled for decades against the sex dens of Soho, but has found that it does not have adequate powers to enforce the law. 'Soho is known as the sex capital of this country,' said Gary Blackwell, Westminster's lawyer.

Mr Blackwell said the recession was harder on legitimate businesses than on the sex trade, with the result that reputable commerce has been moving out of Soho while even more sex clubs are moving in.

Some of the clubs are no longer just peep shows, and attempt to operate as brothels backstage, providing so-called 'extra services' to customers. 'We find this out by having our officers pose as punters,' explained Mr Blackwell. 'We presume these services are actually provided, but our officers are not allowed to find out.'

Many of the clubs seem willing to accept council raids, fines and the impounding of goods as normal overhead costs that can be met out of high profits. Stocks of videos, books and magazines can be held to a minimum on the premises, so that a club can replace impounded material and reopen within hours of a raid, with little loss of material.

The true owners of many Soho clubs remain a guarded secret. The premises are run by front men, Mr Blackwell said. 'Who knows who actually owns them. We don't. But we have a good idea sometimes. Companies are registered offshore, or operate from addresses that don't exist. Enforcement of the law is impossible.'

The enforcement that does take place is expensive, and has little long-term effect. 'It costs pounds 1,000 or even pounds 2,000 for each investigation, raid and prosecution,' Mr Blackwell said, and the outcome of a court case might be just a pounds 50 fine.

Named defendants are often on supplementary benefit, which the court is bound to take into account when setting fines. 'Although the court has the power to award costs, we come to the same problem - and it won't award costs.'

The Westminster bill is intended to be a solution by tightening the control of sex establishments in the borough. The bill would enable the council to close down an establishment and apply for a court order to prevent it reopening.

'With those new powers we would be able to close the premises, and they will move somewhere else,' said Mr Blackwell - conceding that this would be 'no great help to other authorities.'

It is too early to assume that the bill will be passed. It is due to go soon to committee and apparently has been well received by the Home Office - although by the time it becomes law it is likely to be amended.

Other authorities argue that a national solution is needed. 'We don't regard local bills as the right way forward,' said Kevin Williams, head of building control in Islington. 'If it is the right solution in Westminster, then it is the right solution in John O'Groats or wherever. It's a good idea and it should force the Government to take action,' added Mr Williams.

Not surprisingly, Islington's main concern is about fire safety in private clubs. Mr Williams is involved in the Department of Trade and Industry's review of fire safety regulations. 'One of the things we are looking at is whether all public buildings should have similar standards, be it a church building, the Albert Hall or Barbican Centre.'

Refusing licences to clubs is not a solution, as Islington council found. 'We are damned if we do and damned if we don't. If we issue licences, residents ask why. If we don't, the clubs simply go underground.' These operations also use various devices to avoid the necessity of having a club licence - for example, by putting up the price of drinks instead of having a door charge.

The London Fire Brigade has given a lukewarm welcome to Westminster's bill. 'If they can close a place down for a while, and get more licensed, then there will be fewer fires,' said Keith Wright, divisional officer at the brigade. 'Part of that licence always covers fire safety. Eventually, when all places are licensed, there will be some improvement.'

The fire service is more interested in streamlining responsibility for building inspection. The London brigade wants all new buildings to be approved by local authorities, with all occupied premises to be inspected by the fire services.

'We know how people behave in buildings, and we know how fire behaves in buildings,' said Peter Fulcher, the brigade's deputy assistant fire officer. At the moment, councils have responsibility for fire safety in entertainment halls, licensed properties and houses of multiple occupation, with fire services responsible for other occupied buildings.

The concerns of the fire service will hopefully be resolved by the DTI's review of fire regulations - and not before time. The Westminster bill was never intended to specifically deal with fire safety, although the council argues it will be of indirect benefit.

Westminster says the bill could be a model for national legislation. It concedes it may push the problem elsewhere, but says this is justified because of the borough's specific problems. 'If it is a national problem, it is more of a problem in Soho,' said Mr Blackwell.

(Photograph omitted)