Three years on, what's changed?

07 March, 2008

What has the Licensing Act achieved, asks Rebecca Evans

As the DCMS published its review of the Licensing Act 2003, the media and politicians whipped up another storm of controversy about exactly what the law has achieved.

There is no question that the old, magistrate-focused licensing system had to go. And go it did, replaced with personal and premises licences, with electorally accountable licensing authorities at the helm. But at the same time, the government took the decision to effectively extend licensing hours right round the clock, by removing authorities' right to object unless they received complaints from police or public.

When the Licensing Act (2003) received Royal Assent in Parliament, Culture Secretary at the time Tessa Jowell said it balanced "liberalisation and deregulation with new levels of protection for local residents and communities". The DCMS press statement of the time said that the removal of artificially fixed closing times would "encourage a more civilised culture in pubs, bars and restaurants".

But, three years after its introduction, the new licensing law has not turned the UK into a nation of clog-wearing, latte-sipping luvvies.

Last week, Local Government Association chairman and leader of Westminster Council Simon Milton told The Telegraph that the Licensing Act had "failed miserably".

"Historically, this country has had a problem with drink and the chief measure we had to control the problem was licensing hours," Milton told the newspaper.

"The Licensing Act essentially tossed that away and didn't put anything new in its place.

"It was sold on a clear bill that this act was intended to change Britain's drinking culture by turning us from a nation of binge drinkers into a continental café culture. On its own terms it has failed miserably."

It's hard to believe that anyone would be naive enough to believe that a law would change the culture of an entire nation.

But, three-and-a-half years on, has it achieved its other objectives?

Minimal off-trade impact

The 24-hour opening has had a minimal effect on the off-trade, and most of the media headlines have focused on pubs and clubs. Only 5,100 licensed premises have 24-hour licenses in place - 4 per cent of the UK's total. Large supermarkets and larger convenience stores form the majority of 24-hour licence holders in the off-trade. Smaller shops and independents often don't have a need or desire to open around the clock.

But other parts of it have had a more significant effect. For one, the system moved decision-making powers from magistrates to electorally-accountable licensing authorities. It also built in greater flexibility, so that once an individual held a personal licence, he or she could go on to run any shop holding a premises licence. Residents were given greater scope to get involved and make their voices heard.

An independent scrutiny council report, ordered by the DCMS and published in 2006, made a number of encouraging findings. Residents are more aware of their rights when it comes to licensing, licensees are more aware of their responsibilities and the police, fire services and other responsible authorities were "engaging in the process and making representations in a way that helps licensed premises".

Police were increasingly using the enforcement powers under the Act to deal with problem premises and "in many areas the Act has helped the various local authorities to work better together".

Despite this report, there have been some individual causes for concern. Some authorities have insisted on strict licence conditions being imposed. Westminster Council, for example, put pressure on shops to agree to stop stocking super-strength lager - and then included it as a licence condition.

Excessive conditions

Authorities in some areas have insisted that shops stick to their original licence conditions to the letter, even in the case of minor cosmetic changes to the shop. OLN covered the story of one man who was not allowed to change to a different type of flooring because the original type had been specified in his licence. This has put shops to a great deal of inconvenience and extra cost. There are now, however, plans in place to make applying for variations easier and cheaper, so that licence holders do not have to go through the entire process again.

OLN has reported regularly on the licence appeal process, and it is clear that when traders do fall foul of the law, in most cases they are allowed to continue trading but with stricter licence conditions. Residents, too, regularly object to applications and OLN has reported on these in almost every issue since the law was introduced.

So it seems the system is working, and the dodgy dealers are being drummed out of the business.

There are many in the off-trade who continue to feel hard done by, because despite the evidence that the irresponsible minority of shopkeepers are being gradually wiped out by the Licensing Act, the government still appears to be specifically targeting the off-trade.

The evidence shows its stance to be

nonsense. Last autumn's test purchasing campaign showed a lower rate of failure for the off-trade (14%) than the on-trade (18%). The pass rates have improved significantly every year.

Despite this encouraging trend, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this week that he thought shopkeepers should lose their licence for failing two test purchases. This comes despite the existence of a "three strikes and you're out" law. It seems the goalposts are shifting almost daily.

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman sums the mood up neatly: "Making the mistake of selling alcohol to someone under-age already comes with the threat of losing your business or your job, as well as fines and prison sentences. Right now, retailers work in a climate of fear where they know that they could lose their livelihoods, and this rhetoric does nothing but demotivate legitimate responsible businesses who do

so much to tackle this problem."

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