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Licensing and the issue of trading late

By James Anderson, partner, Poppleston Allen

- Last updated on GMT

Advice provided: Poppleston Allen's James Anderson offers pointers on obtaining a late licence
Advice provided: Poppleston Allen's James Anderson offers pointers on obtaining a late licence

Related tags Licensing Poppleston allen Legislation Health and safety

I attended the London Property Forum last week which had three principal speakers and a panel to discuss issues relevant to the trade; two of the speakers were from late-night businesses, operators of cocktail bars and nightclubs respectively, and the issue of the importance of later hours was emphasised.

The Forum included a question about how easy or difficult is it to obtain later hours and in this article, I try to offer a brief guide.

As I am sure all operators, surveyors and property lawyers involved in the late-night leisure industry will know by far the easiest way is to buy a licensed premises that has a late licence and transfer that. However, although some sites are available, the decline in the classic nightclub style of trading has led to many closures and licenses being surrendered or lapsing due to insolvency.

The starting point for consideration of the issue of later hours on a new application is the theory that an operator can apply for whatever hours it wants. This was a central tenant of the Licensing Act 2003 which came into force in 2005.

This “brave new world” has been gradually choked. Many local authorities, all of whom have to publish a licensing policy, started to seek to restrict certain areas in terms of numbers of licences and later in also operating hours because of the concerns of local residents and the Police in relation to crime and disorder.

Considerable impact

These policies have had a considerable impact in my view (not many studies have been done) in reducing in many towns and cities the number of late-night bars and in particular nightclubs. I recall in my home city of Nottingham (when I was young!)  there were probably eight traditional disco-style nightclubs with queuing post-11pm and now I think there are four.

In taking these decisions to impose Cumulative Impact and restrictive core hours policies, the local authority is making a political decision which inevitably puts the prevention of public nuisance and crime and disorder above the leisure industry and vibrancy.

If local councillors are told repeatedly of issues or problems and in the past 10 years this has been exacerbated by a reduction in police numbers, it is very tempting to restrict new applicants from obtaining licences, particularly later licences.

In addition, many councils in central London (Westminster, Camden, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington, and Kensington & Chelsea, to name several) have policies which either provide a guideline terminal hour or divide each Borough into areas where certain hours are acceptable for certain different premises as a guideline.

More recently, and I believe post-Covid and looking more holistically at the high street and the impact of the internet and retail closure, some Local Authorities have started to row back the other way and certainly Nottingham has not removed its Cumulative Impact Policy (in force since 2005) and Liverpool and Birmingham also. It is interesting to note that Birmingham has just been voted the number one city in the UK for the vibrancy of its centre and I am sure that this is not a coincidence.

Mixed picture

We are therefore left with a picture where some cities are more open and welcoming to late-night operators, appreciating the positive benefits and into this category would fall Cardiff, Bristol and Manchester.

The picture therefore is mixed dependent upon the political will of the local authority to appreciate the late-night leisure industry and its impact on the late-night economy and knock-on impact on the day-time economy.

To confuse matters, some councils have kept their policies in place but are interpreting them more liberally than previously; York and Newcastle retain their quite rigid Cumulative Impact Policies, for example.

In practice, operators want to follow the vibrancy as in these larger cities they will be more commercially successful; those local authority areas which are still not welcoming to the late-night operator may well have less problems in their city centre, but (as I believe Nottingham has found) will have to set their Pubwatch/Purple Flags/Best Bar None awards against a lack of new operators and vibrancy. This is a political choice and that is the reason why there is such a high level of inconsistency throughout England and Wales.

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