Gill Sherratt, licensing consultant at Napthens solicitors (www.napthens.co.uk), delves into how local councils can create a permissive licensing environment that supports small business owners.
When the Licensing Act was introduced, it was expected that granting businesses the right to sell and supply alcohol would be seamless and hassle-free. Fast-forward 17 years and there are still systematic failings that create friction and unnecessary stress, that ultimately leads to real business losses for traders.
Standing alone, the Licensing Act is a robust piece of legislation. It was created to bring together a previously fragmented licensing system into a clear, transparent integrated framework for making decisions on granting licences.
The problem begins in practice, where it is not applied consistently by the local councils that are responsible for processing and granting applications. In short, a local business’ right to sell and supply alcohol is determined by a single national law, yet it’s a lottery when it comes to how a local council will interpret it. Some councils apply the law and grant applications without any issue, and have transparent, timely processes in place that keeps everyone fully informed on the status of an application; others fail to.
In turn, this creates inefficiencies and can often lead to costly delays that cause widespread uncertainty and financial hardship for small business owners looking to trade and honestly run a shop or restaurant. For example, some delays are caused by inappropriate and unnecessary objections from council officers. I have dealt with shops that wait for months on end for its application to be granted – when you think of all the lost alcohol sales during this time, the financial loss can be crippling. Time is of the essence for a small shop or kiosk and any unnecessary objection by the council can stall a business’ growth and sales.
Similarly, council licensing officers have been known to request staff to close the shop during working hours, to allow them to conduct a licensing inspection and check if it is complying properly, which is highly inappropriate. This negatively impacts the shop’s ability to provide its service to its customers and can potentially hamper its reputation.
Many problems stem from local councils being under resourced and understaffed, but most significantly lacking the knowledge of their role and how to maintain efficient, fair, and timely internal processes. There is inconsistency across councils especially, for example, when it comes getting in contact.
Many council websites do not have contact details listed, making it difficult for businesses to get in touch about their applications.
Without the specific contact details for the licensing department, small businesses then struggle to find out the status of their application. This can cause unnecessary delays simply because no one is answering the phone or the re-contact policy is that the licensing officer will get back to you in ten days.
What’s more concerning is that in terms of enforcing the licensing legislation, small businesses are more often the focus of authority attention than larger corporate retailers. Councils often offer little flexibility to the needs of the local business community, and fail to acknowledge that they do not have the same resources to deal with any problems that arise.
If we are to overcome these challenges councils that have poor practices must address their disconnection to small businesses and meet in the middle to understand how serious unnecessary delays and checks can be. From here, local councils with poor practices can begin to foster an environment that supports businesses instead of creating barriers to trade.
They must understand that the Licensing Act is permissive in nature. It is not designed to prevent businesses from trading and small business owners should be afforded support and help to correct failings. . Councils also need more funding to invest in modern technology, that makes application processes more straightforward, more staff to better communicate with applicants, and to learn from other local authorities that have more streamlined processes in place.
From here, councils will be better able to build trust and cultivate a business environment whereby people are supported and are encouraged to operate in a very challenging arena, with the backing of their local authority.