Licensing and Planning: Why Collaboration is Key for a Sustainable Night-Time Economy

Louise Portman, legal director and specialist licensing and planning lawyer at Shakespeare Martineau.

Urgent action needs to be taken to help balance a thriving night-time economy with city centre residential development. It’s an issue facing many local authorities in the UK. On one hand, restaurants, pubs, bars, and clubs play a vital role in creating vibrant city centres but on the other, excessive noise and other disturbances are a growing concern for residents. It is a challenge that must be addressed to protect the licensing trade, while acknowledging the need to boost housing supply in the UK will inevitably mean an increased focus on city centre living.

The House of Lords Select Committee has recently published a report following its review of the Licensing Act 2003, which has been on the statute books for 11 years. One of the major issues that have been highlighted is the tension between the separate planning and licensing regimes and how this has created adverse impacts on established licensed premises in city centre locations. There have been numerous cases where planning permission has been granted for residential accommodation in close proximity to an established licensed venue, and as a direct consequence of the noise complaints of new residents, the permitted licensing hours of the business have been reduced. This can have a detrimental impact on the venue’s commercial viability. Having identified this issue, the report explores how more joined-up thinking between planning and licensing could be a positive step towards creating a sustainable night-time economy.

One of the more prominent yet radical recommendations of the report is to integrate licensing and planning committees. There have been many cases where a new restaurant or bar gets permission from the local licensing committee but not the planning team or vice versa. Similarly, the terminal hours they are granted have also varied. This lack of coordination between the two committees can cause confusion for licensees. For example, they could receive an approval from one committee and a refusal from the other for the same business proposition, or approvals dictating different trading hours.

Although combining the two committees will involve amendments to the Licensing Act 2003 and planning and licensing policy, it is essential that the system is reformed so that the bigger picture is taken into account. This will ensure that licensing and planning officers work in harmony and increased oversight will allow any potential problems to be addressed and ironed out at an early stage. After all, no one wins if a planning permission granted to “Peter” means that “Paul” loses his licence. The report is therefore recommending that proposed changes are debated now and trialled through a number of pilot schemes.

Other issues that have been highlighted are proposals to address the costly delays that licensing appeals can cause, and the report suggests that they are handled by the Planning Inspectorate. In the current legal system, if a person or business is dissatisfied with the decision of the licensing authority, their appeal goes straight to the Magistrates Court. However, because many lay magistrates are not trained in licensing, they are not best placed to adjudicate on the detailed legal issues or understand the technical evidence sufficiently. This means decisions are rarely dealt with quickly and consistently. Increasing pressure on available court time can mean it takes longer for the appeal to come before the court. These delays are expensive and could cause a business to fail if it is unable to plan for the future, or in some extreme cases, if it is unable to operate until the outcome of their appeal is known. Training Planning Inspectors to deal with licensing appeals will ensure that they are processed efficiently and consistently, within an established and proven appeal framework. It could also allow scope for appeals for less contentious matters to be made by written representation; saving both time and money for the licensee.

The report’s suggested move to abolish or significantly amend the Late Night Levy (LNL) will be music to many licensees’ ears. Although initially set up to raise funds to mitigate crime and disorder at night, it is apparent that LNLs are not working effectively and are often viewed as unfair. However, there does need to be a system in place that aims to improve conditions for the night-time economy, whilst protecting the interests of urban residents. Initiatives such as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and the appointment of the Night Czar in London are welcomed proposals – bringing additional flexibility and knowledge to help improve standards and tackle issues at a local level.

Although at this stage, the Committee’s findings are just suggestions and may or may not result in legislative change, the report is sending a positive signal to the UK’s licensing sector. Licensees should not become complacent and wait for the changes to be enacted however. Instead, they should see this as an opportunity to actively promote change in their area by engaging with local planning and licensing forums. This will allow them to influence emerging policy, helping to protect their businesses going forward.  Licensee’s should also be alive to planning proposals in the vicinity of their business and not be afraid to engage with the local planning authority to ensure that any residential proposals have appropriate safeguards in place to prevent adverse impacts on their business. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to seek funding from the proposed development to enhance noise insulation and sound systems.

The report has acknowledged the disconnect that exists between planning and licensing regimes, but with greater collaboration and engagement, local authorities can succeed in building a thriving night-time economy into an environment that people will want to call home.

Louise Portman is a legal director and specialist licensing and planning lawyer at Shakespeare Martineau.