Scrap Local Authority Licensing Committees, Lords Committee Recommends

In the eleven years since it has been in force hardly a year has gone by without major amendment to the Licensing Act 2003. The Lords Committee, set up to scrutinise the Act, wants to bring an end to these frequent piecemeal changes, and recommends a one-off radical overhaul, including the abolition of local authority licensing committees.

Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, said: “The Act is fundamentally flawed and needs a major overhaul. It was a mistake and a missed opportunity to set up new licensing committees when the planning system was already available to regulate the use of land for many different purposes. The planning system is well suited to dealing with licensing applications and appeals, and the interests of residents are always taken into account.

“The Committee was shocked by some of the evidence it received on hearings before licensing committees. Their decisions have been described as “something of a lottery”, “lacking formality”, and “indifferent”, with some “scandalous misuses of the powers of elected local councillors”.

“We cannot understand why the Government has decided not to apply the Act to sales at airports. This can lead to dangerous situations, and must be changed.

“Pubs, clubs and live music venues are a vital part of our cultural identity. Any decline in our cities’ world-famous night life ought to be prevented and the businesses supported. But the night time economy needs regulating; even in these areas of cities, residents have their rights. The current systems are not being used because they do not work.”

Key points from the report

Integrate licensing with planning

  • The Committee found that the Government made a substantial error in placing the responsibility for licensing with local authority licensing committees.
  • The evidence received against local authority licensing committees was damning and the committee was extremely concerned by what it heard.
  • Planning committees are much more effective, reliable and well-equipped to make licensing decisions, which have a significant impact on local communities and can be “life or death” to businesses, their owners and their staff.
  • The Committee recommends that coordination between the licensing and planning systems should begin immediately in all local authorities.
  • Fees for licensing should be set locally, not nationally.

Follow Scotland’s lead

  • The legality of Minimum Unit Pricing is still under consideration by the Supreme Court. If it is found to be lawful and introduced in Scotland, and found to be effective in cutting down excessive drinking, the Committee recommends that England and Wales follows Scotland’s lead.
  • The Committee also recommends following Scotland’s example in helping disabled people to access licensed premises by ensuring that a disabled access statement is provided with a premises licensing application.

Late Night Levy

  • The Committee heard very convincing evidence suggesting that the Late Night Levy does not pay for the cost of policing as intended, and came to the conclusion that in its current form it is fundamentally wrong, in principle and practice. Unless amendments already made prove effective, they should be repealed. So should Early Morning Restriction Orders, which no local authority has yet introduced.

Commenting on the key issues of the inquiry BBPA Chief Executive, Brigid Simmonds said:

Overall

“I very much welcome the Committee’s statement that “pubs, clubs and live music venues are a vital part of our cultural identity. Any decline in our cities’ world-famous night life ought to be prevented and the businesses supported.

“I also welcome the Committee’s opposition to making public health a licencing objective. The licensing process wasn’t designed for such a broad purpose, and should instead focus on individual venues.

“For similar reasons, the rejection of Group Review Intervention Powers is also welcome, as we don’t believe blanket conditions on all premises in an area are appropriate – the focus should remain in tackling problems at specific premises.”

Abolition of the Late Night Levy

“This key recommendation has our full support. Where introduced, Late Night Levies have proved to be a damaging new tax on local businesses. Few local authorities have taken them up, and Cheltenham recently became the first council to abolish its levy in favour of a Business Improvement District (BID).

“Partnership working, between the police, local councils and local businesses, is the best way to tackle any problems in the night-time economy; this is an approach we have consistently championed. It’s welcome, therefore, to see the report recommending that Local Authorities give serious consideration to implementing BID schemes.

“For the same reason, we welcome the call to abolish Early Morning Restriction Orders as not a single local authority has taken them up.”

Scrapping of local authority licensing committees

“I welcome the committee’s highlighting of bad practice, but this could persist if licensing were transferred to Planning committees. Local authorities need clearer guidance and councillors need better training, so that they can consider key licensing decisions in the fairest and most effective way possible. I very much welcome the call for greater co-ordination within local authorities, and for training to be mandatory.”

Sale of alcohol at airports

“Airports are treated differently, but the industry works in partnership with the police and airport authorities to tackle any problems. We would be happy to review these arrangements and extend them where necessary, but the current penalties for passengers who cause flight disruption are rightly severe.”

Fees for licensing should be set locally, not nationally

“This would be a concern, as there would be a temptation for local councils to ‘gold plate’ their own licencing regimes at the expense of small local businesses. We would need a national cap on fees, and we would also certainly need a level playing field for on-trade and off-trade retailers.

“Large on-trade retailers in the higher fee band often have to pay a supplement to their licensing fees, but larger off-trade retailers do not. The system could work more fairly, to reflect the increasing share of alcohol sales in the off trade.”

Helping disabled people to access licensed premises

“We recognise the need for venues to focus on this issue. We believe that a voluntary approach, through raising awareness works best, and we have recently produced an updated version of our accessibility guide to help pubs give the best possible service for those with access needs.”