Are good pubs the victim of over-enforcement?

By Jonathan Smith

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags License World war ii Police

Feeling ticked off: checklists often have little to do with the realities of running a good pub
Feeling ticked off: checklists often have little to do with the realities of running a good pub
A couple of weeks ago the Metropolitan police and other agencies launched the second phase of Operation Condor. This was enforcement by way of inspection of a number of licensed premises, including pubs and bars in central London.

I am not sure who thought of naming this initiative after the high-flying Andean bird, which gives it a slightly sinister ring, but then names of operations can be misleading; only the British could describe a major Second World War offensive as Operation Market Garden.

I know I am showing my age, but I had to suppress a chuckle as I still associate the word ‘condor’ with the contented pipe smoker, relaxing in his armchair, breathing in the luxurious smoke and saying in a dreamy voice: “Ah, Condor.”

I am not sure whether the licensees and managers of the pubs under the microscope in central London enjoyed many ‘Condor moments’.

However, enough of my reminiscing about advertisements that would no longer be allowed. Operation Condor does show a type and style of enforcement that is relatively new and epitomises the change in enforcement culture that the Licensing Act 2003 has introduced.

The ability to impose conditions on premises licences has created an enforcement merry-go-round that never previously existed and is almost an alternative to the real world — a sort of ‘other world enforcement’.

The ‘other world’ means that it is not enough for me to run my pub well so that my customers enjoy the experience; that I close on time; that my customers leave reasonably quietly; that any music I play does not disturb my neighbours; that any outside garden is cleared of customers at a reasonable hour if I have neighbours close by etc. If I do these things then I would be entitled to call myself ‘a good operator’ and to be regarded as such by the licensing authority and the police.  

I may do all of this, but still find a large South American vulture sweeping from the heights in my direction as a mixed group of police officers and others come to inspect my premises. They may not be local, indeed, they may not be interested if I run a ‘tight ship’ or not; they are visitors from that other enforcement world where compliance and checklists are king.
In that world they are concerned with: do I have the requisite notices on display? Are my doors and windows closed? Do I have a personal licence holder on duty? Where is my noise management plan and my dispersal policy? My rota for checking the outside area? If I cannot produce all of these but I do not need to call the police regularly, I do not disturb anyone and my pub is full of contented and well-behaved customers, am I no longer a good operator?

This is where the two worlds collide, that of the real world of doing the job properly and the surreal world of complying with all of the conditions and having the correct pieces of paperwork.

Please be assured, I am not for a minute suggesting that it is acceptable for an operator to break a condition on his premises licence and possibly commit a criminal offence. It is simply that operators find it extremely frustrating when ‘checklist’ enforcement is simply that and not based on risk or a recent complaint. 
I was involved a couple of years ago with a late-night bar that operated in a London satellite town. My client was an old-fashioned type of operator who tended to write things on the back of a beer mat.

He knew his clientele well and had very few problems until there was a particularly serious incident. The police licensing officer was less happy at the lack of policies and procedures in place than at the incident.

He gave the example of the large nightclub down the road where the police were called every Friday and Saturday night but had excellent operating practices.

It seemed it was more acceptable for the large nightclub to have problems because it was ‘doing its best’ by having these excellent practices than my client who simply got on with the job. So who is the better operator here, the one with very few incidents or the one with the nicely paginated ring binder?

I fear sometimes that there is a real danger that compliance-based enforcement (‘the other world’) is regarded as more significant than what is happening ‘at the sharp end’ and that it does not necessarily achieve the removal of the bad operator, but simply re-enforces an enforcement ‘because we can’ culture.

Related topics Licensing law

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