This week the House of Lords recommended sweeping changes to what it called the “fundamentally flawed” Licensing Act. Kate Nicholls, of the ALMR, writes for MCA on the details of the recommendations and what they could mean for operators.

The recent Lords Committee report on the Licensing Act 2003 contains much to be welcomed and there were some positive recommendations as a result of strong lobbying by the ALMR that, if adopted by the government, would make a real difference to licensed operators’ businesses.

The Licensing Act has been a powerful catalyst for innovation across the licensed hospitality sector and has resulted in diversification and investment in venues and high streets which are less focused on the sale of alcohol. It sought to provide freedom and flexibility for operators to better meet the changing needs of consumers which, in turn, has delivered a more vibrant and diverse night time economy.

This was the first review of the Act since it took effect in 2005, since when hardly a year has passed without major amendment or tinkering. These rolling reforms have added new controls and powers, primarily impacting the on trade, and risk undermining its original objectives, ignoring the benefits of the successful partnerships our sector has built with local communities.

The rationale behind the Lords Committee set up to scrutinise the Act is to bring to an end these frequent piecemeal changes and map out a recommended way forward. As the only national trade body dedicated solely to representing the needs and concerns of a broad range of licensed hospitality operators, we have been actively involved in the discussion and fully immersed in licensing reforms since 1999.

One of the key messages in our evidence to the Lords committee was around the lack of process and standardisation when it came to local licensing committees. Inadequate guidance on hearings and processes, lack of clear and effective training and the limitations of the Act in ensuring the appropriate balance in decision-making were key aspects of our evidence.

Currently, businesses bear the brunt of a process and that all too often doesn’t deliver on the standards that committed operators deserve in return for the investment, efforts, jobs and social benefit that pubs, bars and restaurants provide.

Through our evidence and others, the Lords gained an accurate insight into the flaws of the committees. Licensing is the cornerstone of licensed operators’ business viability, and should appropriately be accorded a quasi-judicial status. A better understanding of licensing can be achieved through increasing the knowledge of licensing officers, a point the Lords have recognised in calling for mandatory training.

When giving evidence to the committee, I argued that the wording of current guidance was leading local licensing officers and committees to accept without question whatever the police say, in terms of both evidence and recommendations. This creates a vacuum at the heart of licensing authority work, whereby committees are partially or fully abdicating their responsibility to scrutinise police evidence to the same high standards as they would any other, which could (and does) have huge implications for licensed businesses and local residents.

We are pleased that the Lords took on board these concerns and recommend removing the clause in the current guidance which states that Licensing Authorities should “accept all reasonable and proportionate representations made by the police”.

Other significant recommendations that would have a beneficial impact if adopted include when a licence is revoked on a summary review, and the livelihood of the licensee is at stake, a Magistrates’ Court should list appeals for hearing as soon as they are ready.

The report also calls for a full Agent of Change principle to be adopted in both planning and licensing guidance to help protect existing venues from the consequences arising from any new build development in their vicinity. This is absolutely vital for the continued success of late-night operators and was a key demand in our late-night manifesto.

Part of the appeal of urban living is the close proximity to pubs, bars, restaurants and nightclubs. However, currently new residents can complain about noise from existing venues and licences can be restricted or revoked. Operators need some security of tenure when new developments are proposed otherwise it is difficult to attract and sustain investment, and keep our cities vibrant.

We welcome the fact that the committee chose not to recommend the promotion of health and wellbeing as a licensing objective. Our sector can and should play its role, in common with all businesses, in combating broader social challenges, but we cannot be liable for causing or solving all of society’s ills.

The ALMR has been the only national trade association actively challenging the introduction of Draconian measures such as the late-night levy across the UK and we will continue to promote alternatives and the value of partnership in reducing alcohol-related crime and disorder.

They represent a significant and additional tax on business and levies – along with early morning restriction orders – further increase cost pressures on hardworking operators, undermine investment and could potentially put jobs at risk. Put simply, they are blunt tools, ineffective for promoting healthier attitudes to alcohol, and ill-equipped to tackle any perceived areas of harm.

So, we wholeheartedly welcome the committee’s recommendation that both these measures should be repealed.

Further recommendations on reforming licensing fees need to be carefully considered before any implementation, to ensure that operators and investors are provided with certainty and consistency with regard to cost variations. While locally-set fees could work, there would need to be a national framework to provide consistency, fairness and transparency.

The 2003 Act played a part in shaping the industry as we see it today but subsequent reforms and additions have made procedures more complex and inconsistent. The time for an overhaul of the legislation is long overdue. We now await the Government response to the report and will continue to press the industry’s case for reform and a licensing regime that enables our sector to thrive.

Kate Nicholls is Chief Executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers