Industry history

The Licensing Act: ten years on

By James Evison contact

- Last updated on GMT

The Licensing Act: ten years on

Related tags: Licensing act, Drinking culture

Ten years on the Licensing Act has not become the ‘free for all’ that was anticipated. The Publican’s Morning Advertiser looks back at the past decade.

Armageddon. The end of the world. Bureaucracy, paperwork and spiralling costs. An investigation by the Cabinet Office into how it is impacting licensees. More investigations. A government review. New laws and powers. Discussions in the House of Commons , discussions at local authority level, discussions even within the hallowed halls of Number 10.

It was a whirlwind of change in 2005 as 24-hour drinking became a reality and licensing became the responsibility of local authorities rather than the courts – as Tony Blair actively promoted a European drinking culture and as we entered a brave new world of pub and bar culture.

Hysteria

But although many thought the new laws would simply create a culture of more binge drinking and more alcohol-related health issues, the reality was untrue​.

In May this year, the Institute of Economic Affairs released its report Drinking, Fast and Slow​, which was a demining verdict on those that had portrayed the Licensing Act in a negative light.

The statistics?​ Violent crime fell, binge-drinking fell, alcohol consumption fell, fewer drink-driving accidents, no rise in alcohol-related A & E admissions, and no rise in alcohol-related deaths.

No mayhem

Originally in 2005, operators were unconvinced that the new Licensing Act would tackle binge drinking​ – especially those in the late night sector.

However, as early as 2008, research by Middlesex University and the Alcohol Education and Research Council​ was suggesting that extended pub opening hours was not having an impact, or, in the words of a Dr John Foster: “We have found that the much-predicted mayhem resulting from the changes has not resulted.”

Later that year, the BBPA and other trade bodies commented that it would​ ‘take longer than a couple of years’ to change the centuries-long drinking patterns of the British public.

A year earlier though, in 2007, there was concern that the public and the police were using their new powers to take action against licensed venues​. A survey of 86% of councils showed that from 670 license reviews that year 90 licenses were revoked.

Government figures also suggested that of the 5,100 premises with 24-hour licences, just 9% were pubs, bars or nightclubs.

Coalition

The issue was then thrown up in the air again in 2010, when the incoming Coalition Government decided to re-assess the licensing laws​, and undertake a six week consultation on the Act.

The move to give councils and the police ‘stronger powers’ to remove licenses was described in an editorial within The Publican​ as a ‘load of rubbish’ and ‘blatantly designed to appeal to the fears of middle England’.

At the same time, the Home Office took back the responsibility for the Licensing Act​ from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Fight back

In September, 25 pubcos threw their support​ behind what they described as ‘direct action’ against major changes to the Licensing Act at an Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers working group event.

The boss of a Lincolnshire bar group, Kurnia, also got involved in December​, calling on licensees to write to their MPs over the proposed changes – especially the ‘headline grabbing’ fine of £20,000 for underage sales.

Police Reform Bill

Concern was raised in the House of Lords regarding the ‘vicinity test’​ of the alcohol licensing issues within the Police and Social Reform Bill in April 2011.

Despite evidence to the contrary, and several references during the debate to Morning Advertiser​ articles, several Lords said the Licensing Act had failed and Baroness Finlay of Llandaff went as far as to call it  ‘a spectacular failure’.

Add on policies

In 2014, a significant addition was made – Mandatory Licensing Conditions​ – which made irresponsible drinks deal illegal and rules around the availability of smaller measures.

The future

Commenting on the anniversary, BBPA chief executive, Brigid Simmonds, said:  “The Licensing Act is working well, and has not resulted in the ‘free for all’ that some suggest.

“24-hour drinking is very much a myth, as on average, pubs close less than half an hour later than they did under the previous Licensing Act. Harmful drinking and alcohol related violence are also falling.

“Pubs are a vital community resource and we want to encourage drinking in a responsible environment like the pub.  In the tiny minority of premises where there are problems, local authorities have plenty of powers to restrict licensing hours and close down premises that do not behave responsibly.

“We have also seen significant ‘add ons’ since 2005, such as Mandatory Licence Conditions, bringing significant additional costs and burdens to licensing regulation in the sector. Overall, we should be looking at how we can ease the regulatory burden on pubs.

“The pub industry is not complacent, and plays an active role in fostering partnerships at a local level, from Pubwatch to Business Improvement Districts or Best Bar None, so that local communities, police, local authorities and the industry can work together to find the best solutions. 

“It is hugely important that we have a vibrant pubs sector - and there is plenty of evidence that many towns and cities are achieving the right balance.”

Related topics: Licensing law

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