Westminster council finds a new enemy: screaming girls

First it was drunkards, then beggars and the homeless. Now the institution which has built its reputation on sweeping undesirables from the streets of London has identified a new anti-social menace: screaming teenage girls.

Westminster City Council is awaiting the decision of a planning inspector on the threat posed to public order by female pop fans after embroiling itself in a legal battle with MTV, the music television channel, over the use of Leicester Square. The council, renowned in recent years for its hardline approach to anti-social behaviour, has said it wants a more family-friendly atmosphere in the square to rid the area of its image as a low-brow tourist trap assailed at night by gangs of drunks.

MTV approached Westminster to stage a British version of the channel's hit American show, Total Request Live, in a glass-fronted studio facing the square. But councillors rejected the plan, fearing it would attract crowds of placard-waving pop fans. During a three-day planning inquiry last week, estimated to have cost £25,000, the council outlined its objections by saying it was worried that unruly and "mostly female" crowds would gather to watch celebrities being interviewed for the daily live show, causing too much noise and potential congestion.

Adam Hilton, an independent planning consultant employed by Westminster to help with its case, said the show would "give ample opportunity for [the fans] to scream, to wave placards and banners, and to press against barriers in the manner familiar since the emergence of the Beatles, if not of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra or Enrico Caruso."

In its formal reasons for rejecting the project, the council added: "The proposed use is likely to generate large and uninvited crowds of variable and unpredictable size, in particular to view artists arriving or departing from the premises."

The hardline stance has caused exasperation at MTV. Total Request Live is a mixed-format show in the US with star interviews and viewer requests for videos. It broadcasts from a studio overlooking Times Square in New York.

MTV pointed out that its application to Westminster was supported by the council's officials and that it was never allowed to formally put its case to the planning committee.

New York's mayor and police force actively supported MTV's move to Times Square as part of a drive to clean up the crime-ridden area. The British version of Total Request Live is to be filmed from a first-floor studio in a former night club, Home, which was closed by the authorities amid allegations of drug dealing.

A spokesman for MTV, which submitted its plans 12 months ago, said yesterday: "The programme lasts for an hour in the late afternoon in a square which has at least one film premiere a week and regularly attracts crowds of several thousand people. The police say they will be able to deal with any crowd generated by our show but the council have got things a bit out of proportion and out of perspective. We accept that their concern is genuinely held, but what they are worried about is possibility of excited teenage girls turning up to see a big-name celebrity."

Total Request Live, which is also produced in Italy and Scandinavia, is one of MTV's most popular shows, attracting leading stars from music, film and television to its lucrative audience of teenagers and people in their twenties.

But the broadcaster insisted the most popular celebrities, such as Kylie Minogue, would only appear once every couple of months and crowds in Leicester Square would be no more than a few hundred.

Opposition has been led by Ian Wilder, a Conservative councillor who has led a personal crusade to clean up the area, including producing a film of unsavoury behaviour after dark. Mr Wilder, who has supported plans for a 2,000-seat theatre on the corner of Leicester Square where the MTV studio is to be sited, has written to residents and businesses in the area encouraging them to object. He said: "We want the drinkers, junkies and gangs out, and we want culture to take its rightful place at the forefront of Leicester Square."

The council announced plans two years ago to fine homeless people £500 for sleeping rough and conducted a zero-tolerance campaign against the homeless and beggars in February, arresting offenders.

The independent planning inspector is to announce a decision on MTV's appeal in June.

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