Comments on the White Paper

Time for Reform

Proposals for the Modernisation of our Licensing Laws (Cmd 4696)

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(A synopsis of the Trust's submission is here.)

Introduction

The City of Durham Trust was founded in 1942 and is the local civic amenity society in the City of Durham. We are affiliated to the Civic Trust. Our area of operation is the same as that of the district local authority (the City of Durham Council). We are a charity whose objects include "to preserve for the benefit of the public the amenities of the City of Durham..." and "... to assist the development of urban or rural community life", and it is in pursuit of these objectives that we are submitting these comments.

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.

Synopsis

Our detailed comments on the individual paragraphs of the White Paper are given below. The key points we are making, which might otherwise be lost in the detailed submission, are as follows:

    Detailed comments

    These comments are numbered to correspond to the numbering of the White Paper.

    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.

    1   Introduction

  1. We support the aims of the White Paper. We would like to comment particularly on "to encourage self-sufficient rural communities". Durham City is surrounded by a number of rural villages, all in the District Council area. We have seen rural pubs close, most recently The Centurion at Langley Park. A factor in this is the growth of licensed premises in Durham City, Newcastle, and other larger towns, which attract custom, particularly younger people, away from the local pub.

    We will return to this topic at number 46, where we suggest measures to alleviate the problem.

    Chapters 2-4

    We have no comments to make on these three chapters

    5   A New Personal Licence

  1. We find amazing the recommendation that possession of a personal licence should qualify someone to run anything from a corner store selling the odd bottle of wine through to a large city-centre night-club. The justification that "...commercial demands should ensure that managers of the right calibre are recruited" is breathtakingly na´ve. Commercial pressures are far more likely to result in the recruitment of someone who will push the envelope of what they can get away with to the limits, or to take a chance with an inexperienced person. Or someone with corner shop experience could buy a pub underestimating the challenges that involves. Corrective action might well follow swiftly (but see our comments on paragraph 46 about the burden of proof) but in the time that elapses between the problem becoming apparent and it being resolved, it would be the community that suffered.

    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:

    • Applicants for a personal licence should be able to volunteer to restrict themselves to a particular section of the trade and then only have to demonstrate a competence for that section.

    • Licensing authorities, when awarding premises licences, should categorise the premises into eg general shop or supermarket, off-licence, small pub, larger pub, music venue, restaurant. The proposed national database could then hold details of what type of premises a personal licence holder had been responsible for, when, and for how long.

    • It is also likely that there will be a considerable number of personal licensees who were not currently personally responsible for licensed premises, but who were employed in one in a senior capacity. This relevant experience could also be recorded on the national database.

    • Regulations should then provide that only those personal licensees with recent relevant experience would be eligible to take on the larger and more complex venues. Relevant experience might include being the licensee of somewhere lower down the scale, or as a senior employee at the same type of venue, or both.

    Adopting these proposals would give greater confidence that those taking charge of licensed premises were up to the job.

    6   A New Premises Licence

  1. The whole thrust of this section is concerned with the licensing of an individual establishment, and ensuring that it is run in a proper manner. It does not deal with the problem where public disorder, vandalism, and anti-social behaviour cannot be pinned on any individual premises but on the concentration of similar premises in the locality.

    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.

  2. The deadline of 11pm after which a premises license would be required is acceptable if this is time the last customer is shown the door, but not if this is time the last meal is served (with time for eating it added on). Durham people tend to go to bed earlier, and rise earlier, than Londoners and by 11pm most would have retired for the night.

    7   Conditions and Hours

  1. There should be scope for local residents and amenity groups to seek to have the permitted hours reduced should circumstances require it. Legislation will need to address the problem when too many pubs are staying open too late, of deciding which should have its hours reduced.

  1. We welcome the proposals to curb under-age drinking and close loopholes which are contained in this chapter. A particular concern of ours is with pubs located near schools and sixth-form colleges. The proposed new power to impose a condition that bans all those under 18, regardless of whether they are consuming alcoholic drinks, should help. It should be possible to qualify this condition so that it only applied in term time, and/or before 5pm, thus targeting the problem. It should also be possible to impose this condition if a school opens or is reorganised, without needing evidence of under-age drinking first.

    8   An Effective New System of Sanctions and Punishments

    We have no comments on this chapter.

    9   Non-Profit-Making Registered Clubs

  1. The assumption of this chapter is that clubs are autonomous bodies, only serving members and their bona fide guests. In fact many clubs also admit members of affiliated clubs who will not be known to the committee, but gain admittance on production of the appropriate card. The assumption that "...members are subject to disciplinary procedures which generally assure the proper conduct of members on the premises" would only be true at one remove: the club's sanction against unruly members of affiliated clubs would be to bar them from the premises. The implications of this need to be thought through.

    10   Excluding the Undesirable

  1. Exclusion orders should also be available where a drink-related offence has been committed in a public place, i.e. not on licensed premises. We agree with the assertion in paragraph 114 that "Those who have a propensity to violence and who cannot drink and behave acceptably should be excluded from licensed premises and registered clubs". However, we cannot see why this sanction is only available where the offence is committed in licensed premises. Offences committed in public affect more people.

    11   An Accountable Licensing Authority

    In Durham, the city council recently sent two of its officers to a hearing of the licensing magistrates in support of an application by the developer AMEC for a new 600-capacity public house as part of a joint venture project between AMEC and itself. The application was opposed by this society and others, particularly on the grounds of the public order problems and vandalism that happen in the city after closing time. After a day-long hearing, the magistrates decided to grant a temporary licence, with a raft of conditions to mitigate the problems we identified.

    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.

    12   A Fair Appeal System

  1. Paragraph 127 envisages an appeal by local residents and others against the grant of a licence, but this paragraph only lists decisions unfavourable to licence-holders as being open to appeal. This is surely an oversight which needs to be corrected? The principles set out in paragraph 127 need to be carried through here.

    13   Costs and Resources

    We have no comments on this final section nor on any of the appendices which follow,

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