Councils cannot refund or reduce the level of the fees because this is determined by central legislation, which pub trade bodies have protested against.
Some councils have opted to give businesses the option to defer the annual licence fee payments in terms of when business can pay, such as paying in six months’ time rather than now. However, fee due dates will remain unchanged and original invoices issued, the Local Government Association confirmed.
Philip Kolvin from Cornerstone Barristers and Clare Eames of Poppleston Allen suggested the Government should amend legislation to prevent authorities collecting the levy during the lockdown and charging pro rata for the remaining part of the year when the lockdown is lifted.
The night czar of London Amy Lamé has urged councils to suspend collection of licence and late-night levy fees, as many businesses are struggling for cash flow.
She added: “London’s pubs are at the heart of life in the capital – acting as community hubs as well as important employers and local businesses. They are a key part of our heritage but many are facing permanent closure due to the impact of the coronavirus.”
Unfair on others
The levy scheme is not only operated in London boroughs but across the country in select areas, including in Newcastle, Southampton and Chelmsford.
Chelmsford City Council said it would be unfair to freeze renewal of the licence during lockdown because some businesses that have already paid it. However, it said it would look at rebates and discounts for next year.
A council spokesperson said: “As the levy is payable on renewal of the licence, it would be unfair on businesses, which have already paid to freeze it for those premises whose renewal date falls within the lockdown period.
“However, we understand that many of the initiatives it funds are not currently running, so there may be scope for a refund or discounted rate next year. We won’t know the financial saving until the restrictions are lifted: once they are lifted, the issue of a rebate or discount for next year can be discussed further.”
It said payments from the 30 premises that were required to pay the levy for being open beyond 1am was used for initiatives to keep the public safe, including an SOS bus and taxi marshals.
React to changes
East London’s Tower Hamlets borough said it would monitor the situation but was unable to introduce any payment breaks or refunds as it stands.
A spokesperson said: “We’re working closely with businesses to provide support during the coronavirus pandemic and we recognise the importance of helping licensed premises as they deal with this unprecedented challenge.
“However, the legislation doesn’t currently give us the option of introducing a payment break or a refund for levy payers. We will continue to monitor the situation and react to changes as they are introduced.”
Hackney Council, also in east London, said its licensing service had delayed sending annual fee payment reminders during the lockdown period.
It will also not suspend licences for non-payment of annual fees, including the late-night levy where businesses have had to close in accordance with coronavirus regulations. This position will be reviewed again at the end of June and may be extended further depending on the national picture at the time, a spokesperson confirmed.
A spokesperson from Southwark Council said that no formal decision had been made on levy demands yet and the issue was subject to ongoing discussions.
An Islington Council spokesperson said it was looking at the guidance on staggering payments for the coming year and how it could help businesses in the current circumstances.
Liverpool Council said it was aware of the option to defer payment to assist pubs but no decision had been made yet ahead of when the payments would be due in late 2020/early 2021.
Southampton City Council did not respond by the time of publication.