Licensing battleground

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Related tags: Judge, High court, Officer, Westminster

Westminster is the entertainment capital of the world - but on its own terms. Increasingly, the borough is taking a tougher line on licensing as the...

Westminster is the entertainment capital of the world - but on its own terms.

Increasingly, the borough is taking a tougher line on licensing as the 2003 Act beds in, and its unique position is implicitly allowed, even though it flies in the face of the actual provisions of the Act.

Councillor Audrey Lewis, who is head of en-vironmental protection, which covers licensing issues, is fond of saying that Westminster

has never lost a licensing decision.

This is, of course, not entirely true, but there are clear indications that it will use every pound of available taxpayers' money in pursuing to the higher courts key decisions which might be seen as undermining their stranglehold on licensing policy.

The danger now is that the council will pay only lip service to the so-called "discretion" which is built in to the legislation and the Guidance.

For example, their policy must not be absolute on such issues as stress areas and cumulative impact.

They must treat each case "on its merits" and decide whether the grant of a licence, or an extension of hours, will in exceptional circumstances be allowed because the applicant has shown that it will not undermine the licensing objectives.

I think it is clear that the days of "exceptional circumstances" are numbered, if not already over.

In a recent case I covered, the only speaker to have the ear of the committee at a licensing hearing was the environmental health officer whose observations and suppositions were clearly given weight without examination or challenge.

The main thrust of the objection was that the venue, any venue, could act as a magnet to young binge drinkers and, therefore, should not be allowed.

If there are one or two cases where the policy has been holed, then the council will act fast to pull up the drawbridge. Committees will be reluctant to concede that there are any exceptional circumstances at all in future, for fear that this concession itself will be used in the magistrates' court to push through a relaxation of hours.

It seems that parts of the judiciary, too, are in thrall to the idea that Westminster's legal position is unique and, therefore, it should have special treatment.

It is hardly a level playing field when the council is able to persuade a High Court

judge to depart from the normal requirements for proper notice because it is an "important public authority". So it is, but it should stick

to the law of the land like everyone else.

Related topics: Licensing law

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