The reports in the press about local authorities struggling financially may have implications for the provision of licensing functions.
Those of us who practise this rather arcane pursuit tend to forget that licensing is only a very small part of local authorities’ duties and is not regarded understandably as significant compared to many of their other responsibilities. Arguably, therefore, it is more at risk of the fallout from that dreaded word ‘restructuring’. I sometimes smile to myself when I telephone the main number of some local authorities and I am given an automated list of services of which ‘refuse collection’ is the most important and licensing does not even merit a mention. I digress slightly but my favourite is: “If you have not had your bins emptied today then please hang up now”!
For some time now, along with other public services (including the police), there has been a trend that includes moving council offices out of town, replacing decision makers with administrative staff, not replacing experienced officers, reducing staff numbers and relying on technology and flexible working.
In many local authorities (but I stress not all), it can be very difficult to get hold of licensing or environmental health officers particularly if urgent assistance is needed; often an enquirer is encouraged to email, which may be answered in two to three days but may not be; sometimes a call to an officer who knows the area, the policy and the views of local councillors can be invaluable to a client looking to move to the area.
I have recently been trying to track down an environmental health (noise) officer in the north of the country, who has been most elusive. I managed to leave a message on his voicemail that had the extremely positive message: “My aim is to return calls by the following day.” I am sorry to report that two weeks later this ambitious standard has not been met. However, this officer also has the memorable ‘out of office’, which states: “I am out of the office and I will respond to this if my inbox is not full and your email has not been rejected.”
I am not making this up and, while it may be amusing, there is a serious point here. We in the licensing business rely on local authorities being contactable and having discussions, which is all part of the process and partnership working. If local authorities continue to be squeezed then it will make the process less efficient; it will be harder to obtain guidance and have decisions made,
clients will get frustrated and there will be an impact on business development and efficiency.