Out of control? The trade's concern over licensing reform remains

Related tags Local authorities License Local government

The Government's plans for licensing reform have been welcomed by the public, however, the trade still has many concerns. It seems the traditional...

The Government's plans for licensing reform have been welcomed by the public, however, the trade still has many concerns.

It seems the traditional English pastime of being kicked out of the pub at 11pm is to come to an end. But despite the demise of a part of history there will be no tears or fond farewells - it appears licensees and the public are glad of the chance to serve and drink alcohol whenever they want.

Since Home Office minister Mike O'Brien announced the details of the Government's plans for reform, the tabloids have been full of the good news.

But despite the general good response, there are still serious concerns within the trade over other aspects of the wide-reaching reforms.

The announcement that responsibility for licensing will be passed to local authorities has not been greeted enthusiastically by the industry.

And some trade leaders, led by JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin and Stuart Neame, vice chairman of Kent brewer Shepherd Neame, are so worried about the proposals that they are creating their own alternative licensing bill.

They hope their solution will prove the present system, where magistrates are responsible for licensing, is cheaper, fairer and quicker to introduce.

Mr Martin and Mr Neame, along with other family brewers, claim the cost to the government could be up to six times less under magistrates' control than under local authority control.

Mr Neame said he thought many parts of the reform were weighted the wrong way. "Under these rules hours would only be extended in circumstances where local authorities think it's a good idea. We think it should be the other way round so they're only not extended if local authorities don't think it's a good idea," he said.

The Government has partly addressed the issue of licence fees, another bone of contention with the trade, in its announcement. There is to be a national scale of fees so that authorities cannot raise them at will.

But there are still a number of issues surrounding the timescale for hearings and the fact that the authorities also deal with other issues affecting pubs such as health and safety and trading standards. Licensees fear that a dispute with one department could have a knock-on effect on whether they are granted a licence with the hours they want.

Add to this the fact that local councillors are not legally trained and are ultimately responsible to the residents who elected them rather than businesses like pubs and you also have a recipe for politically-biased decisions.

The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers is also against local authority control as set out by the Government but is reluctant to back the campaign for magistrate control.

It has instead pledged to draw up a checklist of the trade's requirements against which ministers can assess which body is most likely to be able to meet those demands.

There are other options to consider, including a mixed licensing bench which comprises both magistrates and local authorities.

But other sectors of the trade claim the battle against the transfer is now a lost cause and have accepted the proposals as set out by Mike O'Brien.

The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association (BLRA) is already working on ways to make sure the new system is fair and efficient.

It is focusing instead on drafting a set of guidelines so that local authority decisions give equal weight to trade views.

The Government received 926 responses to its licensing white paper, Time to Reform. Most responses were in favour of the changes but 195 of them objected and many of those objections were to do with the shift to local authority control.

Mr O'Brien said: "I understand many people in the trade are concerned moving licensing to local authorities will mean they have less say but this is not the case. It is not going to be so local residents have a greater say than licensees."

One concession the Government has made is to allow magistrates to deal with licensing appeals rather than the crown court, which was the original plan.

BLRA spokesman Mark Hastings said he thought this was a good thing. "It gives clarification of the right of appeal to magistrates," he said. "We'd welcome the fact the Government has listened to the industry and its concerns and I think the fact that this gives licensees the opportunity to appeal on issues other than points of law is very positive."

Ian Foulkes, head of public protection at the Local Government Association (LGA), said the trade had nothing to worry about.

"The LGA has worked, and continues to work, with all the trade and industry bodies and has made numerous public commitments to work with the industry to ensure the new regime is implemented and operates efficiently and effectively," he said.

The Government's plans are likely to be included in the Queen's Speech this year and could be in place by 2002 if Labour wins the General Election.

The Government's proposals:

  • A single integrated system for licensing premises which sell alcohol or provide public entertainment with a premises licence which will include conditions on hours, noise and capacity.
  • A system of personal licences, issued for 10 years, allowing the holder to sell or serve alcohol.
  • Flexible opening hours with the potential for up to 24-hour opening, seven days a week.
  • Licences to sell or supply alcohol granted by local authorities instead of magistrates.
  • Increased access for children to licensed premises but licensing authorities will be able to restrict access for children to unsuitable premises.
  • Appeals over the local authority's decision would be made to the magistrates' court.

Related topics Licensing law

Property of the week

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more