Comments on the White Paper
Time for Reform
Proposals for the Modernisation of our Licensing Laws (Cmd 4696)
The Trust is supported by its members, who number around 370 mostly living in and around the City. We are therefore able to hold general meetings, usually three times a year, as a way of informing our members and ascertaining their views. Members can also keep Trustees aware of their views on an informal basis between meetings. It is clear that members are concerned about the growth in the number of licensed premises in the City over the past few years, particularly those catering for the younger drinker. The Trust has, with mixed success, opposed planning and licence applications where it seemed to us that these would be detrimental to the nature of the City or to its community. Our members have supported the Trustees in these actions.
We also know that we have the support of the wider community beyond our membership for our stand. Our knowledge of this comes from our own informal contacts, from the feedback we get when we address meetings of other bodies, and from correspondence in the local press.
We are limited in what we might say by our charitable status, objectives, and area of operation. Our silence on any part of the White Paper should not be taken as approval or otherwise.
We will return to this topic at number 46, where we suggest measures to alleviate the problem.
Similar arguments could be advanced to permit anybody with a driving licence for a family car to drive an HGV, because haulage firms would not entrust their valuable vehicles to unskilled drivers, and in any case we could ban them from driving if they had an accident.
Presumably the qualification that acts as a passport to a personal licence would have a syllabus that covered the whole range of possibilities of selling alcohol, from internet and mail order sales, corner shops, supermarkets, off-licences, rural pubs, large pubs, cafes, winebars, restaurants and night-clubs. In any case, someone seeking a personal licence would have to demonstrate competence to enter any branch of the licensed trade. This is an unwarranted extra burden on those wishing only to run a corner shop or small off-licence, and runs contrary to the objective (paragraph 2) of wanting to reduce the burden on business of unnecessary regulation. There might well be some shopkeepers with no ambition to run a pub or night-club of any description, who would give up off-sales rather than undertake training that would qualify them to do so. This would be to the detriment of rural communities.
On the other hand, if the proposals are put into practice, someone could obtain an appropriate qualification and with it their personal licence, then enter a section of the trade which meant they had no need to put into practice a large part of what they had learnt. We note and approve the proposal (paragraph 40) that anyone who had been absent from the trade for five years would lose their licence and have to requalify. However, would someone who had not run a pub or night-club for five years similarly lose their knowledge of what that entails?
We therefore make the following proposals:
Adopting these proposals would give greater confidence that those taking charge of licensed premises were up to the job.
The initial bullet point refers to an operating plan, which would set out the limits within which the premises would run. These limits should be measured with reference to a classification scheme which would relate to the degree of skill and experience a licensee would need to manage the premises properly, although more specific detail would need to be supplied. This classification would determine which personal licence holders had sufficient experience to take on the premises (see our comments on paragraph 42).
The reference at the top of page 26 to avoiding a re-run of the planning decision would have been better had it examined the scope of what is possible in a planning context. There is a need for some joined-up thinking, so that where the planning process gives out, the licensing process takes over. As it is, we need a process so that rural pubs and indeed lower-key town and city centre premises do not lose out to major new operations. These will inevitably involve some sort of commercial decisions if a locality is to have the right mix of pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants catering to all parts of the community. It is regrettable that these considerations have been excluded.
The approach when considering an application focuses on potential problems arising inside the premises rather than on the police and community's ability to cope with problems in the streets. It may well be that an individual application is for an establishment essentially no different to those already in existence and it will be difficult, particularly given the burden of proof being on objectors, to show that the licence should not be granted. However, the cumulative effect of this licence when added to others in existence could exceed the capacity of the town. In pursuit of the objectives of countering crime and disorder, improving public safety and reducing public nuisance, the licensing authority should be able to set limits on the number and type of licensed premises in the locality, rejecting applications beyond that limit regardless of their merits.
Durham is a city which we feel is now past that limit. Local residents in streets leading away from the city centre (where most of the pubs and clubs are) complain that after closing time on a Friday and Saturday night they suffer rowdiness in the streets, vandalism (broken house windows, cars damaged - walking over cars is a particular favourite) and vomiting and urination. A survey of residents of one local street leading out of the city showed that just about every long-term resident had suffered vandalism to cars parked in the street, most within the past two years. We know from our contacts with other civic amenity societies in other parts of the country that this is a common problem. We remain sceptical that the staggering of closing times will alleviate the problem to any great extent.
Local residents and interest groups at present have some problems in learning of proposed licensing applications because the notice needs only be displayed for seven days before a hearing, and advertised in a local paper, of which there may be a choice. The notification proposals in the White Paper are therefore in principle welcome, though it is not clear what "All local residents and businesses within the licensing area ... should be notified" means. The licensing authority should publish a list of applications received, as is done for planning applications, so people would know where to look and not have to rely on buying the right paper on the right day, or happening to see a notice displayed on a building not currently licensed.
Although it is not specifically stated, it seems implicit that where a review of an existing licence is called for, the burden of proof will again lie with objectors. The wording at the foot of page 26 is expressed in terms of a change being sought in an individual licence. It seems to us that problems meriting a review could arise not only because of a failing on the part of the licensee, but also because the licensing authority had set up a licensing regime that was too lax. This would be a particular risk in the period immediately after the proposed new legislation was brought in, because of a lack of experience on the part of licensing authorities. A review should also be merited because general problems had arisen in the locality or because of a change of circumstances that was external to the premises, for example the construction of a hospital, retirement home, school etc. Legislation should provide that in these ircumstances licensing authorities could impose additional conditions relating to opening hours, soundproofing, etc.
Had the city council itself been the licensing authority, there would have been an inevitable conflict of interest raising fears that commercial considerations would have overridden local concerns. (This application had already satisfied the authority's own published licensing strategy.)
This problem applies not only in joint ventures, but also when the authority is licensing a public hall or similar premises owned by the district council. There could also be a conflict of interest where the premises in question are a potential competitor to some the council has an interest in.
An analogous problem arises in the planning arena, and we have raised this though the Civic Trust and supported other local amenity societies who are similarly concerned. However, there is a solution in this case, because it is possible for the Secretary of State to call-in the planning application in question and determine it himself. The White Paper should offer a similar solution.
In our view, this is a serious defect in the proposals which needs to be addressed. It is not present in the current system, but we recognise the democratic deficit therein. We wonder whether making licensing a function of the Police Authority rather than the district council would be a possible solution.