Heelz Adult Store, based on the outskirts of Burton upon Trent, is being prosecuted by East Staffordshire Borough Council for trading without a licence – even though, according to the store, the council has not actually stated what percentage of sex products constitute a ‘significant degree’, and would thus require a licence.
Mike McGee, co-owner of R18 film publisher and distributor DVM Enterprises and also boss of Heelz Adult Store, told ETO: “We’ve been in talks with [the council] from when we first opened the shop two years ago. They visited us and said we needed a licence due to the ‘significant degree’ of sex products we stocked. They weren’t able to put a figure to what a significant degree was at the time, but we had an interview with them last December – under caution, making us feel like criminals, and recording it – and asked why we’d not applied. We only hold a small range of what they class as stimulating items – toys, whatever – and explained this.”
He continued: “After the meeting they came back down in the New Year and saw that we’d taken it upon ourselves to reduce the number of ‘sex items’ to a small range – as they’d not been able to tell us what was too much. They said at that time that we should ignore the deadline they’d given us to apply for a licence and we didn’t hear anything more from them. Although that stockholding’s not changed, we did put up a new sign calling Heelz an Adult Store – not a sex shop – and soon afterwards they were back in again, giving us a letter saying we needed to apply for a licence. We don’t sell R18s to the public although some are stored in the industrial unit as it’s one of our warehouses too, so that’s not the issue and East Staffordshire Borough Council won’t tell us what they would accept as not needing a licence. They’ve just reiterated that in their view we need one as we’re selling ‘a significant degree’ etc.”
McGee added: “We’ve been asking them for the last few months to define ‘a significant degree’. In order to trade we need to know what’s what, but they say it’s ‘not for them to determine’, apparently. Just how that tallies, I don’t know! To try to placate them – and not that we’ve been told to – we’ve moved the toys to a less visible location, out of the way more. If someone comes in the shop they’ll see the lingerie and shoes, clothes etc and if they’re looking for toys we can direct them to them. It had gone quiet from the council until a month ago when their head enforcement officer contacted us to ask why we were unlicensed – we explained that without guidance we can’t easily comply with invisible guidelines. I’d say we’ve a smaller proportion of sex lines than Ann Summers, but that’s not been good enough for them. A few weeks ago we were asked to go in for another meeting but while trying to get dates together for that a court summons has arrived.”
Sounding frustrated, Mike continued: “We’ve been told to be in court on October the 18th, when we’re booked in at Venus in Berlin. It’s bizarre to have this drop on our doorstep while still in talks with the council. There’d been no warning it would happen. We said ‘we were coming to see you!’ and the head of licensing said that there was a timescale to get it sorted. They simply never told us that. There was no mention of it. I queried the court summons and was told that between March and May an informant working for the licensing team has visited and determined that we were trading without a licence – which we and everyone else knows already – and that in their opinion we needed one. That’s the alleged offence we’ve committed, but unless they tell us what a reasonable amount of ‘sex articles’ is, how can we comply? I’d say we’re around 12-15%, if that. We’ve done some research in a popular High Street adult retailer and took photos. I counted well over 950 items there, including products promoted in-store as sex toys, which we don’t do, and they trade unlicensed. If the council had said ‘12% is too high, we want it to be under 10%’ we’d have pulled some stock off the shelves – fine. But they just won’t tell us.”
“We’re now at the stage where I’ve a court date to go to, but hopefully it’s going to be adjourned until November as Venus was already booked before the summons arrived,” McGee concluded. “We’ve a pile of letters from the council, not giving a timescale for action, and I’ve logged the phone calls to the licensing team, with notes like ‘call between 8.10am and 9am and you’ll catch her [the head of licensing] as she’ll not in meetings then’ and she’s not been available. We called on many occasions to arrange the meeting she wanted and was told she was out of the office or whatever. It’s just ridiculous. We’re still asking for figures, percentages – any pointer as to what’s acceptable but as it’s now going to court the council tell us it’s too late. We’re banking on the judge being sensible and seeing that we’ve not been given a reasonable chance to comply with the council’s wishes, as what they determine to be a significant degree of stimulation products seems to a secret. It would be one thing if we were selling R18 DVDs to the public here, but we’re not! We know the rules and that’s fine. However, they’ve taken us to court without telling us really what we’ve done and that’s a crazy state of affairs. We’re looking into legal representation but there are very few solicitors who seem to understand the licensing system, perhaps because it’s such a mess with different rules being applied differently up and down the country.”
Following our conversation with Mike McGee, ETO Magazine contacted Margaret Woolley, head of licensing for East Staffordshire Borough Council. She told us: “I’ve emailed our legal team, as we are taking formal action, but it’s difficult for us to talk about the situation at present. I’m waiting for them to come back to me to see what they want us to release. I’m not able to give you any information at the moment and can’t comment on this case specifically.”
She continued: “I’m not trying to be awkward but it is an ongoing situation and we don’t wish to prejudice the case. Not from our perspective nor for the gentleman who’s contacted you either, to be fair.”
Ms Woolley promised ETO a statement, approved by the council’s legal team, when she was able to release one, but this is unlikely to be until after the court case.