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Cambridge councillor Richard Robertson left facing £34,500 legal bill for helping Mill Road community

A city councillor is facing a legal bill of more than £34,000 after leading a ‘David and Goliath’ fight on behalf of residents to keep alcohol misuse off the streets.

Cllr Richard Robertson, who now has a massive legal bill after challenging a drinks license granted for the Co-op on Mill Road Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Richard Robertson, who now has a massive legal bill after challenging a drinks license granted for the Co-op on Mill Road Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Richard Robertson lost legal action seeking to ensure that Cambridge City Council applied its own policy relating to street-drinking and had costs awarded against him.

He has been ordered to pay £28,132 to the Co-op and city council towards the costs of lawyers they hired to defend a licensing sub-committee decision taken in 2021.

Combined with his own legal fees of £6,383, Cllr Robertson needs to find a whopping £34,515.

“It was a very stressful event,” Cllr Robertson (Lab, Petersfield) told the Cambridge Independent. “The city council did warn us that costs could come our way, but nevertheless I thought we had a very good case and the barrister’s opinion I got was that there was a reasonable case.”

Cllr Robertson has launched a crowdfunding appeal to help him – and said if it did not succeed he will be forced to use his savings to help settle the legal bill.

The battle ensued after the council’s licensing sub committee granted a premises licence for the sale of alcohol to the Co-op store at 44A Mill Road in June 2021.

The decision was made despite opposition to the licence from the police, local councillors and more than 50 local residents.

The decision was also contrary to the council’s own policy to presume refusal of applications for licences to sell alcohol in Mill Road, which is designated as a ‘Cumulative Impact Zone’ (CIZ) in 2007.

This is because of the high number of existing licences and significant problems with anti-social behaviour by street drinkers in the area.

Some residents were dismayed and very concerned that this decision would lead to an increase in alcohol-related anti-social behaviour to levels which they had suffered in the past.

The residents who wrote to the council opposing the licence application explained the problems they had suffered and did not want to recur.

One wrote: “As a resident of Glisson Road I have very clear memories of the problematic street drinking that characterised Mill Road before the area was designated a ‘Cumulative Impact Zone’.

“There were excessive numbers of men drinking heavily and loitering on Mill Road with the usual consequences for individual local women, ie verbal harassment, and persistent and aggressive physical approaches.

“There are also considerable public order issues and vandalism of cars. It was obvious that too many licences to sell alcohol had been granted on Mill Road, and once their numbers were more limited, the situation, particularly as it affected women, improved.”

However, the committee was satisfied that conditions put forward by the Co-op, which were agreed with police, meant the operation of the premises would not “add to the impact of the Cumulative Impact Zone already being experienced”.

The conditions include that no single cans or bottles of beer, cider, or lager can be sold at the premises.

In response to the licence being granted, a group of residents came together and decided to appeal against the council’s decision. Cllr Robertson agreed to take the appeal forward.

The appeal documents show that there have been 10 incidents recorded since the opening of the premises. These include two incidents involving the theft of alcohol and one incident of an assault in the shop.

In his judgment, District Judge King said it was clear that there was “a pre-existing long-standing problem with street drinking in Mill Road” prior to the licence being granted.

He said: “There is no doubt that Cambridgeshire Constabulary objected to the grant of the licence in any form based on their own statistical data and real-world experiences of policing the area and dealing with street drinking and the consequences of street drinking.”

But the judge added: “It is clear to me that the licensing sub committee was aware of the problem of street drinking in Mill Road/Petersfield ward and considered this in their decision.

“The licensing sub committee was evidently satisfied that the list of conditions attached to the licence was sufficient to address those concerns such that the licence should be granted; ultimately the licensing sub committee was satisfied that the presumption against the grant of further licences for premises within the CIZ had been rebutted.”

The judge disputed that the CIZ imposes an “absolute bar” on the granting of new licences and therefore the decision “was not wrong simply”.

“I am satisfied that the licence conditions imposed by the licensing sub committee strike the correct balance between addressing the concerns of local residents regarding street drinking and the consequences, potential or real, of street drinking and allowing a responsible retailer such as Co-op Food Group to sell alcohol as a relatively small but important part of its overall trading from the premises,” the judge said.

Dan Janes, chair of the Guest Road Area Residents’ Association, said the group is proud to stand behind their councillor.

Mr Janes told the Cambridge Independent: “He was acting with good intention and on the behalf of local residents. I’d encourage the community to support him with these costs and we wholeheartedly endorse the efforts to raise funds for his legal bills.”

He likened the legal battle Cllr Robertson faced with the Co-op to a David versus Goliath fight, adding: “By promoting its integrity and community values, and then trying to hit a well-intentioned local councillor with a huge legal bill, the Co-op is exposing the hypocrisy at the core of its corporate identity.

“I call on the Co-op and the city council to do the right thing and stop pursuing Cllr Robertson for their shares of his £35,000 legal bill, and I urge everyone else to donate to his JustGiving page so he no longer has to face any further legal costs alone.”

Abdul Arain, treasurer of Mill Road Traders’ Association, said he supported Cllr Robertson’s bid to try and reduce street drinking but added that the area also needs better policing.

He told the Cambridge Independent: “I think it is a matter of policing that has not been effective. I have not seen a police officer on Mill Road since the Winter Fair.

“I don’t sell alcohol and I think it is one of the biggest harms to health, but it is a democracy and people can buy it and take it home if they want to.”

A spokesperson for Cambridge City Council said: “The licensing sub committee considered the concerns that had been put forward by residents. A licence was approved subject to mandatory conditions put forwards by the applicants, to address these concerns.

“The premises cannot sell single cans or bottles of beer, cider and lager, except for specialist brands that are premium priced products or products that have been agreed by the police.

“The licensing sub committee approved this decision.”

The spokesperson explained that the council would “generally” seek costs to “cover the financial impact of cases such as these”.

The Cambridge Independent contacted the Co-operative Food Group for comment.

To donate, visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/cllr-richard-robertson

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