Licensing lament: How has the regime changed?

By Tony Thornton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Licensing Drinking culture

Victorian attitudes towards temperance influenced the policy of our licensing magistrates until well into the last century.

Victorian attitudes towards temperance influenced the policy of our licensing magistrates until well into the last century.

The impact of this was particularly evident in the formulaic 1930’s ‘improved’ architectural style and layout of public houses from that period. The other feature, which shaped not only the appearance but the running of our public houses for over seventy years, was the First World War.The two enduring legacies of the Great War were restricted trading hours with compulsory afternoon closure, and in response to shortages of Barley, reduced-strength beer. Since then beer strength has rarely reverted to the levels which were common in 1914.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a slow liberalisation of the licensing system. In 1988, following successful changes in Scotland, extended hours were introduced to the rest of the UK, allowing pubs to trade all afternoon and until 11.00 pm, Monday to Saturday. With few problems arising, in 1993 the government rolled back the boundaries a little further by allowing children into bars, with the grant of a children’s certificate, and a month or two later, by extending all-day drinking to Sundays. These long-overdue changes gave the licensed trade a significant boost, perhaps lifting overall trade volumes by 5-10%. Licensing policy was dominated for many years, by the urge to restrict.

Magistrates and politicians decided that they knew best and what might have been good for the trade, or desired by the customer, was rarely considered. Many of us grew up in that long stagnant era when pubs had to close after lunch and again sharp at 11.00pm. The licensed trade may not have enjoyed working to hours which were introduced as an emergency measure, but it stuck stoically to its task of making the best of them for seventy-odd years, until the politicians finally decided that they could trust us with slightly more grown up hours. Having been granted these hours, the trade and its long-suffering customers settled down to enjoy their new freedom when suddenly further reform was in the air.

Given the long wait for the Eighties and Nineties reforms, further changes seemed to be premature, and weren’t widely anticipated. The government statement promising further change was issued in 1998. The chairman of the Working Party, Christopher Haskins, stated: “It is time for regulators to refocus on the reasons for regulating the sales of alcohol – to prevent nuisance and disorder and to protect young and vulnerable members of society. Frequently pub hours are out of tune with modern social life. There is ample evidence that a single closing time creates rather than controls nuisance and disorder.We therefore propose the introduction of more flexible hours based on the circumstances of the local community.”

This set the scene for The March 2000 White Paper, ‘Time for reform; proposals for the modernisation of our licensing laws​’, which proposed flexible hours, a personal ten-year licence and separate premises licence, and tougher powers to control rowdy pubs. Included was the radical proposition of twenty-four-hour opening.

Otherwise, the Act was largely concerned with restructuring and rationalising the administration of the system and addressing concern that the planning and licensing systems didn’t properly integrate. The White Paper and subsequent Licensing Bill sparked huge debate within the industry and a great deal of reticence over the transfer of the system to the control of local authorities. Whilst the arguments continued, and the demands for alterations and reassurances grew, the Act went through, to take effect two years later in 2005.


At the time a mood of expectation and a spirit of liberty and progress was emerging. The Evening Standard typified this with an article entitled ‘twenty-four-hour pubs to end yob culture’ adding that the move towards twenty-four-hour licensing was backed by police chiefs. Few pubs applied for, or obtained twenty-four-hour licensing or anything close to this. Bizarrely a high proportion which were granted these hours were in rural areas of Norfolk and Dorset, where the new licensing authorities encouraged all bars to apply for twenty-four hours to cover all eventualities.

In November 2007 the Department for Media Culture and Sport reported that of 176,400 licensed premises of any type in the UK only 5,100 had twenty-four-hour licences and most were hotels. Only 460 were pubs bars or nightclubs. Yet the fact that twenty-four-hour licensing exists, with the suggestion that people might be drinking all day and night, was seized upon by those with any gripe against the licensed trade to condemn the new Act, the audacity of pubs to take advantage of it, and everything else associated with it. The fact that hardly any outlets traded in that manner and that actual licensing hours were only extended modestly were conveniently forgotten. The media were soon unable to run any story about pubs without prefixing it with a banner headline along the lines of ‘twenty-four-hour licensing mayhem’. The phrase ‘twenty- four-hour licensing’ appeared to be so emotive that a certain type of journalist couldn’t handle the concept with any objectivity or accuracy.

As a result, the Act has turned out to be a Trojan horse for the industry taken as a gift from a Labour government that knew what it was trying to achieve, but not how to make it work, or make the public understand the long-term philosophy underlying it.

Its strategy of flexibility to achieve the twin dreams of orderly streets and a wine- supping sophistication was fine, but not the forlorn hope that such a virtuous world was going to instantly and effortlessly appear simply by staggering closing times. Licensing requires a long-term approach. Just witness how long the 1916 regulations remained in force. Yet the new Act was expected to function perfectly from day one. To quote again from the Haskins Task Force; “There is no evidence that longer opening hours increases hooliganism – by reverse it reduces it. People drinking up very rapidly in the last half hour before closing time is a much greater problem than if they make their own decisions.”

Alcohol Disorder Zones

A recent report by The University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology based on data provided by Greater Manchester Police before and after introduction of the Act shows that there has been little change in street crime figures throughout the period. These undermine Labour’s short-term expectations for the legislation, but more importantly, the media frenzy which sensationalised binge drinking. The report also advised that additional licensed hours in the Manchester area were extended much less than expected, at forty-three minutes on average in the week, and one hour twenty minutes at weekends.

On the fifth anniversary of the introduction of the Act BBPA released figures which showed that, nationally, pubs stayed open for an average of an additional twenty-seven minutes per day after the Act was introduced. Therefore, remarkably little appears to have changed on the streets, or in our pubs, as a result of the Act. Binge drinking was taking place and getting headlines well before 2005.

But the media latched onto trends like more women drinking and the presence of some raunchy pub promotions, and perpetuated and exaggerated the urban myths of laddettes, happy hours and all sorts of other horrors, stirring up an element of paranoia in the process. In 2008 the government reacted by introducing Alcohol Disorder Zones. Not one was actually declared despite the widespread reports of anarchy. The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith clarified that these were only to be used in the last resort, and has since stopped them.

Whilst Home Office statistics, released in September 2009, showed that arrests for drunkenness in public places were down by three-quarters over the previous thirty years; even the humble beer glass was under pressure as over-zealous campaigners demanded that pubs find a less dangerous product to be permitted in the powder-keg environment that was apparently our high street pub. Agitation following further ‘over-reporting’ of binge-drinking incidents created a serious reaction.

Mandatory code

In 2010, a two-stage mandatory code was introduced. In April the first stage banned all-you-can-drink promotions, or women-drink-for-free, made speed drinking competitions and ‘dentists chairs’ (pouring of drinks down a victim’s throat) illegal, and made it obligatory to provide free water to customers. The October code added the obligation for bars to check and demand ID for anyone who appeared to be under 18 and to provide and offer smaller drinks measures. The code was backed by the not-inconsiderable threat of loss of licences, fines of up to £20,000 and six months imprisonment. Few within the trade struggled with these regulations, or wept at the passing of the OTT promotions.

A greater impact was felt by tabloid headline writers, who had to find a new subject to frighten us all with on their sordid front pages. Fortunately, the architects of the code were not tempted to include one of the more fanciful measures speculated upon at the time; a ban on pub staff asking customers if they wanted ‘the same again’ as this might be construed as an incitement to customers to drink excessively. Such was the atmosphere of over-indulgent repression on the one hand and siege-mentality defensiveness on the other. By this time, the coalition were keen to milk whatever kudos they could from their tough stance.

Cynically, they seemed to see licensing as an undoubted vote-winner from the trembling citizens of middle England, rather than an issue to calmly deal with. The Lib-Dems, through their then-home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, extravagantly blamed; “Labour’s lax approach for creating a booze Britain in which an epidemic of drink-fuelled crime and illness is ruining lives and costing the country billions.”

The politicians had conveniently forgotten that the streets of 1990s Conservative Britain had been plagued by another media invention, the ‘lager lout’ and the same stories were being run then under that strapline as now, with a different name for the anti-social menace concerned. The statistics on law and order showed that alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour is less common now, whilst contemporary accounts of the anarchy and violence of the ‘skinhead-infested’ streets of the 1970s or 1980s would suggest that we have come a long way since then. The liberalisation of licensing has much less impact on such matters than wider social trends and patterns of behaviour.

Local control

The local authorities had gained a central role in the licensing system. And contrary to fears from within the trade, most have proved to administer this in an objective and efficient manner. But a few councils with a significant nighttime economy have been quick to pursue their own agendas.

Most notorious are Westminster, already discussed at the end of part three for their reaction during the Nineties pub expansion. Westminster is responsible for over 3,000 licensed premises. Parts of the borough effectively operate as the nation’s entertainment capital. The councils’ intention to restrict the licensed trade, in order to ‘protect’ its privileged local residents, became so unbalanced that a planning inspector intervened to insist that the council must amend its local plan, saying; “… Policies are not only draconian but would be difficult to apply, justify and defend.”

In the meantime the courts have also stepped in with sensible appeal decisions on licensing matters in Westminster. This provides some reassurance that the system contains an effective range of checks and balances. But licensees should not have to undergo such a battle in the first place if policies are drawn up and applied sensibly and fairly. On a national level, the coalition has continued with its very comprehensive alcohol strategy by publishing a series of carefully constructed documents, setting out options and justifying decisions, interspersed by regular consultations with all interested parties.

And whilst it demonstrates that it has created the means to take an iron grip on the industry if disorder continues, this is matched by a reassurance that it only intends to adopt such measures judiciously. Owing to the paranoia created by twenty-four-hour licensing, perhaps a firm intervention was required to demonstrate that the situation was under control and that any alcohol-fuelled disorder in the streets could be dealt with. The government has certainly made available to police and licensing authorities a range of measures. These include late night levies, Early Morning Restriction Orders (EMROs), Cumulative Impact Policies (CIPs), Special Policy Areas (SPAs), and a range of specific local area initiatives and community responsibility schemes such as Best Bar None.

Light touch?

Unfortunately the progressive mood of 1998 is no longer with us. The growing list of local authorities who have declared that they are considering the adoption of EMROs and imposing late night levies casts the spectre of intense regulation over the trade. This conflicts with all of the reassurances provided when the 2005 Act was being introduced that it would be applied with a ‘light touch’.

Such a ‘light touch’ is certainly not in evidence in Hackney, east London, where the local authority have introduced a ‘Special Policy Area’ (SPA) in Dalston. This was justified because of a fear that the nighttime economy was having a detrimental effect on residents. The residents clearly did not agree because in a public consultation carried out during 2013, 84% of the 2,800 who gave their opinion on the issue were opposed to the restriction. Despite this the council introduced the SPA in January 2014, meaning that new licences will only be approved in exceptional circumstances.

The new licensing act has now bedded in and, despite fears and protests, appears to work reasonably well, on a day-to-day level. The media-fuelled paranoia has finally quelled. One can only hope that the excesses on the part of the authorities endeavouring for example to ban ‘vertical drinking’ are not going to be repeated and that the ‘emergency measures’ like EMROs and late night levies will only be adopted in extreme circumstances, where they are fully justified.

The industry and the public accepted restricted and ‘archaic’ licensing hours for generations. Now that the politicians have finally agreed that we can progress to a more enlightened regime, licensing policy should cease to become a matter of politics, controversy, and repression. The system should be permitted to quietly operate in an impartial and fair manner in order that the laudable aims of the 1998 Working Party will be given time to blossom.

Tony Thornton's non-fiction book, Brewers, Brands and the Pub in their Hands​, is available by post (£13.99 plus £3.20 p&p) or as an ebook (£5.99) from​, and through all major bookstores.

Related topics Licensing law

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