Council-trade hostility turns to open conflict

Related tags Licensed trade License Government High court

So the first shots in the forthcoming conflict between local authorities and the licensed trade have been fired. Some might say before, rather than...

So the first shots in the forthcoming conflict between local authorities and the licensed trade have been fired. Some might say before, rather than when, you can see the whites of their eyes.

The decision by three of the main trade organisations (and the inclusion of the BII is interesting) to take legal action against selected local councils purely on the basis of their published policies could lead to two outcomes. The first is a compromise, where the threat of expensive court costs and time-consuming litigation means that the councils sit down again with the trade and focus on the items of concern. The second is a stand-off, developing into outright hostility, with the trade blaming the councils, rather than the Government, for the legal nightmare that licensing reform has become.

So predictable! A powerful civil servant decides that completely untrained and inexperienced councils, which have had nothing to do with alcohol licensing before, should sit down and devise a brand new policy based on untried and untested principles dreamed up by the Government, and can get it right within a period of six months, followed by a manic period of six months to "convert" 170,000 established licences, plus several thousand more new ones, and we expect it to work?

But why didn't the licensed trade recognise this as a bureaucratic nightmare? What on earth did they expect to get out of the process ­ freedom of hours? Release from red tape? Cheaper licences? Less interference? Greater profits?

Surely, when they saw the proposed licensing structure, with its layers of paperwork, notifications, responses, hearings, representations, forms, qualifications and record checks, they realised that the ordinary licensee would be likely to be overwhelmed. This is a system designed by a bureaucrat where the only true survivors will be large organisations with the resources for a team of licensing administrators and a bunch of lawyers to hand. And even the lawyers are floundering!

But I am not sure that this pre-emptive strike is really beneficial. The targets are not necessarily the real targets ­ wait for the fun and games in areas such as Westminster and Camden, which have a very high level of major players and late-night venues, many of which will be quite prepared to take the councils to the High Court on some highly dubious aspects of their policies.

At the time of writing, of course, I do not know what the reaction of the High Court will be to an application for judicial review of policies which have been in position for more than three months. Nor am I sure as to whether a policy can be reviewed until its application has resulted in a distinct disadvantage to particular applicants. This is for the judge to determine.

It might be said, for example, that trade organisations were invited to comment on these policies at the time they were in draft form ­ and indeed actively encouraged their members to do so at the time. Having failed to respond then, it might be seen as unreasonable to take a particular authority to the High Court so late in the day.

On the other hand, there are plenty of policies throughoutthe country that have potentially unfair and unreasonable assumptions or conclusions in them, coupled with a number of additional requirements which could certainly be seen as beyond the scope of the legislation, or duplicating existing legal requirements.

But I feel that there is a real danger of a schism developing between the licensed trade and the local authorities, which will not necessarily work entirely to the trade's advantage. Meanwhile, the real enemy is sitting in his tent, smirking, while the battle rages in the shires!

Related topics Legislation

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