Inside Track by Peter Martin
Regime change can be a messy business – as the growing chaos around the new licensing system is demonstrating. If there is one positive that might emerge from the changeover shambles, it’s that the pub industry and local councils will have to start talking to each other. The only way of avoiding bureaucratic meltdown seems to be for operators and local authorities to begin working together to find solutions that will avoid hundreds, if not thousands, of pubs being forced to close this autumn because they will not be properly licensed. Long-term there will need to be a much better dialogue, understanding and working relationship between these normally uneasy bedfellows if the UK’s licensed retail market and local leisure economies are going to develop. But first they need to address the crisis at hand caused by an over complicated new licensing regime and a widespread ignorance on all sides of what it means and needs to be done. Of course, dialogue isn’t necessarily going to be easy. Judicial reviews of the licensing policies of Canterbury and Gloucester are due to be heard next month, following challenges from the leading pub industry associations. But the wider problems may yet get those councils to think again and negotiate, as seems to be happening with Doncaster, which was also threatened with a challenge. Central Government has a responsibility too. Having proposed and passed the legislation it can’t just stand back – although it’s probably tempted to. This crisis is nothing to do with binge drinking and problem high street bars, the premises that are likely to fall foul of this red tape nightmare are small businesses, community pubs, village inns and even local restaurants. Hotel bars, off-licences and late night cafes are also at risk if their owners don’t get the required paperwork for the new regime lodged in time. The focus on the problems for pubs has obscured the fact that the whole of hospitality is likely to be affected. For example, few in the wider foodservice business seem to realise that even if they don’t sell alcohol, they will still need a licence if they want to sell hot food beyond 11pm. Just as UK tourism is getting back on track, visitors could be faced with fewer places to eat or get a drink. The cut off date for applications from existing licence holders, and the transfer of "grandfather rights", for the new regime is 6 August. Local authorities report that only a fraction of the total number of applications expected have been submitted. It would be easy to switch into blame mode, but neither side can afford that luxury. It is becoming obvious that many licensed retailers need more help, and probably more time, to get to grips with what’s required of them. There is probably the need for councils to be less picky over the objections they are already finding to the few applications for change they have received so far. Certainly, the Labour Government needs to listen – something, along with relieving the burden of Red Tape, it claims it wants to do. In the end, only it has the ultimate power to save the day by passing what will amount to emergency legislation to give all sides more time. John McNamara, chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping, warned of the danger last week at his organisation’s annual lunch. "We are heading for catastrophe. Without valid licences pubs will not be able to trade," he said. M&C Report followed up with its story on the crisis, which was picked by The Times on Friday and then Radio 4’s Today Programme on Saturday. At least, the issue is now getting through to a wider audience, and so far without the normal hysteria that accompanies pub stories in the media. As the song goes: "There's a-nothin' so lonesome, morbid or drear, than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer". Or as French poet Hilaire Belloc observed in the 1930s: "When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves. For you will have lost the last of England." This really could be that serious.