MP wants council to ban strip clubs in Cheltenham
By Laura Enfield | 10th October 2023
A gauntlet has been thrown down amongst Cheltenham politicians over who is responsible for keeping strip clubs clubs out of town.
Tory MP Alex Chalk said he wants them banned from Cheltenham and accused the council of failing to exercise its powers to prevent Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs) from operating here.
He said the council's claim its hands were tied was "misleading" and "patronising" and he had advised them how to make it happen.
His comments were read out at a Cheltenhamn Borough Council meeting last week where plans to allow Eroticats strip club to reopen in November were approved.
Lib Dem Cllr David Willingham, chair of the licensing committee, hit back and said the Secretary of State for Justice was better placed to change the law on SEVs than the council and had been "disingenuous" with the public.
He pointed out that Mr Chalk had not formally objected to the Eroticats licensing application or attended the meeting.
Instead his comments were given via a letter read out by objector Jo Surma, co-coordinator of the Three Counties branch of the Women's Rights Network.
It said he "strongly opposed" the granting of SEV licences in Cheltenham as they "harm local businesses, attract anti-social behaviour and can create an intimidating atmosphere" and he believed the time had come to stop them opening altogether.
It added: "Some councillors have claimed that their hands are tied when it comes to SEV licences, and that moral objections are not a basis for rejection. I'm afraid that is misleading. It's not the case that they can do nothing."
He said he had written to Cllr Willingham, chair of the licensing committee, to set out the powers the council had to take action and received a reply which dismissed the concerns raised as "a minority with moral objections".
Mr Chalk added: "I don't share that assessment. It is patronising and rather misunderstands the issue. I have been contacted by a number of constituents whose concerns are not moral, as they have been at pains to point out, but focused instead on the risks of harassment, the safety of women and impact on business."
In response Cllr Willingham said: "To the best of my knowledge in the entire time that I have been here, we have never had an objection on parliamentary paper from the MP. He has never formally objected despite the fact that he undoubtedly could.
"He is Secretary of State for Justice, and he is better placed to change this legislation than we are.
"I think he may well have been a little bit disingenuous in what he has said to you."
He reiterated that the council could not object to the venue on moral grounds and SEVs are lawful businesses.
Members of the committee agreed it was better to licence the venue as it allowed them to instil rigid conditions and make rigorous checks on how it was being run.
If they refused the application a loophole in the law allows SEVs to effectively operate 'underground' on an infrequent basis without a licence.
European Events Consultants Ltd was already granted a licence at the start of the year for Eroticats to open at Under The Prom during Cheltenham Festival in March.
It saw hundreds of punters ferried from Prestbury Park to the doors of the club at 109 Promenade to spend their winnings on exotic dancers.
Bosses then applied to reopen the pop-up venue to coincide with Cheltenham Racecource's November Meet (Nov 17-19).
In her objection, Ms Surma pointed out that the original permission was given despite the venue being outside the council's designated permitted area for SEVs and that allowing this variation was a "very slippery slope."
The council received 15 letters of objection to the application and one said: "It is unrealistic to expect that (some) men who pay women to dance naked for their sexual gratification in one part of Cheltenham will not be influenced by this experience in other parts of Cheltenham and indeed in their interactions more widely with other women and girls in society."
Objectors who spoke at the meeting included representatives of Gloucestershire Womens Liberation Collective and The Nelson Trust and they asked the council to "take a stand" against lap dancing clubs.
Gilli Appleby CEO of Gloucestershire Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (GRSAC) said: "We know that there is a link in terms of the safety that women and girls feel because of these activities and venues that go on in the town.
"I would ask the council to be bold and be brave and represent the safety of women and girls."
The council also received 11 letter in support of the application and the committee heard from an employee of Eroticats. She said over the years she had worked there as a dancer and housemother her experience had been "nothing but positive".
She added: "Allowing this licence means me and the dancers can return to a place they know and like. Not licensing venues removes that added layer of safety and reassurance that everything is above board and regulated.
"As dancers we are often judged and spoken for and not enough to. We feel like our voices don't matter and ultimately, when it comes to our welfare, safety, choices and how we earn our money, ours should be the only ones that matter."
The committee unanimously approved the application.
After the decision Cllr Willingham said the council takes the issue of women and girl safety seriously but it has to "comply with the legislation".
He added: "We can evidence that we have tried through various means to get those with the ability to change the legislation to lobby for it to be changed.
"Our MP is currently a minister in government. If he can't get that legislation changed based on his position, secretary of state for justice, I don't think anyone can.
"We want to work to make the town safe."
Following the meeting a spokesperson for Mr Chalk said the MP has a standing objection to SEV licences and on a previous occasion had formally objected to the The Two Pigs SEV application.
They added: "Cheltenham Borough Council has the power to refuse them but they choose not to."
Punchline-Gloucester.com has contacted Cheltenham Borough Council for a response and to ask if it would like the law changed on SEVs.
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