A recommendation by a Lords Committee to abolish local authority licensing committees brings no obvious benefit for “real people on the ground”, according to an expert in licensing law.

The Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 described the legislation as “fundamentally flawed” and in need of “a major overhaul”. The committee recommended a one-off radical revamp, including abolishing licensing committees. 

Chairman Baroness McIntosh of Pickering said: “It was a mistake and a missed opportunity to set up new licensing committees when the planning system was already available to regulate the use of land for many different purposes. The planning system is well suited to dealing with licensing applications and appeals, and the interests of residents are always taken into account.

“The committee was shocked by some of the evidence it received on hearings before licensing committees. Their decisions have been described as ‘something of a lottery’, ‘lacking formality’ and ‘indifferent’, with some ‘scandalous misuses of the powers of elected local councillors’.”

But Michelle Hazlewood, partner at licensing solicitors John Gaunt & Partners, believes the system is “not completely flawed”. 

She told OLN: “I think it’s a good skeleton and it’s always been a good skeleton, but it is the flesh that hangs off it that needs re-toning in parts, and there are bits that just don’t work any more.” 

She also believes the idea of moving the licensing regime to planning wouldn’t offer any benefits to retailers, particularly small shops. 

She said: “For real people on the ground where would the benefit be? I always feel that licensing is a tighter, tidier system for people to navigate their way through and people would be thrown into a much more complicated, less transparent system with extended timeframes than where they are at the moment. 

“If any retailers had a go at making a change of use application or trying to even change a shop frontage or façade then planning can be a nightmare.

“And nine out of 10 planning departments take a long time to process things, whereas the timeframes for licensing are so sweetly defined – you know you have 28 days consultation then you’ve either got your license or you are looking at a hearing and that hearing will be in 20 working days. There’s so much more certainty about that and also it does give a chance for their voice to be heard. 

“So the system may not be the best system but to put it into planning? I really don’t think it will help – particularly because I think small retailers have a difficult time dealing with (and getting lost in) the planning system.”

“If a retailer wants to make a small change to their layout they want to know that it will happen. They can then order their stock appropriately. People don’t have the spare cash to outlay and hold stock for some time in the future when they get a green light. They need to know the timeframe when they will get that green light.”

Hazelwood noted that training would also be an issue in the short term. 

“If it goes into planning then everybody who sits on a planning committee would have to be trained in licensing and planning. So if it happens overnight then there will be a period of disarray because people will not necessarily be skilled.”