Chucking-out time has been a cornerstone of English pub life for the past 90 years, but the Government's Alcohol and Entertainment Licensing Bill will sweep away prescribed opening hours. The changes, that could become law by the middle of 2004, may prove a lifeline for thousands of pubs looking for ways to increase revenue.
Licensing was first regulated in England and Wales in the 16th century, but the current 11 o'clock closing was introduced during the First World War to make sure carousing munitions workers got a good night's sleep before starting work. The new bill aims to replace existing permitted opening hours with flexible opening times and cuts red tape, bringing together the licensing of the sale of alcohol, public entertainment and late-night refreshment in one system.
Culture minister Tessa Jowell says she wants to give present licensing arrangements a much-needed overhaul. "Our licensing laws are outdated. This Licensing Bill acknowledges that more than 90% of men and over 85% of women drink alcohol and that the vast majority of them do not drink to excess," she says. "They deserve to finally be treated like grown-ups. If they want to go for a drink after watching a film or a show at 11pm they should have that option."
The Government has not made any predictions about the extent to which later opening will generate more profits for the hospitality industry, but it does believe savings will be made through streamlining the licensing process.
"This bill is good news for the hospitality industry - it should lead to savings of nearly £2b in its first 10 years by cutting out red tape," Jowell says. "And it will bring real benefits to our tourism industry, which is beginning to turn the corner after the effects of 11 September and foot-and-mouth disease."
While critics are predicting that the new laws, announced in the Queen's speech on 13 November, will kick off an orgy of chaotic drunken violence and disorder, industry figures and the Government point to the smooth introduction of daytime drinking in 1988, the success of the 36-hour licences for millennium New Year's Eve and the development of a more responsible drinking culture in Scotland, which already has flexible opening.
Yet pub managers are also warning that businesses will need to be aware of the hurdles they will face by being open for longer. Staffing problems, new competitors, increased regulation and local politics all mean the industry will have to adapt to meet the demands of the consumer while making sure they do not end up working harder to achieve the same turnover.
Publican Allison Davis believes the freedom to increase opening hours could prove a much-needed boost for rural pubs currently struggling to make a profit. With her husband Mark she runs the George and Dragon gastropub in a small Warwickshire village, where they do all the cooking themselves.
"Relaxation of drinking times would help a lot of small village pubs that are fighting to stay open," Davis says. "People say ‘go and get a chef to increase your turnover', but chefs are expensive. We are food-led, but on Fridays and Saturdays we rely on local drinkers. I would expect our community to want us to open for an extra couple of hours on a Friday and Saturday."
British Beer & Pub Association spokesman Mark Hastings believes the change will lead to the growth of a new drinking experience. "The majority of pubs and bars will be looking for an extra couple of hours, particularly on a Friday and Saturday," says Hastings. "We will be seeing different types of pub and bar aimed at different segments of the market. But no one is expecting a bonanza in terms of increased sales, as people will go out later."
Major pub chains and individual licensees alike have given the proposed changes a cautious welcome. Not all pubs will want to open longer - Punch Pub Company polled the licensees of its 4,300 pubs and found 57% wanted to open longer hours but less than 1% would choose to open 24 hours a day. The Government's estimate is that 2% - or just over 3,000 - of the current 180,000 licensed premises will ask for 24-hour licences, mostly in big cities and holiday resorts.
"I believe we will see pubs making an informed choice about when they want to open," says Punch Pub Company commercial director Francis Patton. "Seventy-five per cent of our pubs are community locals and licensees running this sort of pub will choose the hours that suit the local community."
Ember Inns director and general manager John Longbottom says all change will be consumer-led. Longbottom says: "I suspect midnight closing on Friday and Saturday night will be appealing to most of our guests in local pubs. You could be spreading your jam a bit thinner through the day but it is the industry's job to respond and get it right."
In exchange for the relaxation of licensing hours the Government intends to give greater weight to the views of local residents by passing responsibility for granting licences from magistrates to local authorities. Some pub operators are concerned at the involvement of politically elected bodies in deciding whether liquor licences should be granted.
The argument is that councils will refuse licences to win votes from local residents. The bill's sponsors say there will be safeguards to make sure that drinking establishments get a fair hearing, but the industry will want further guarantees from the Government.
A further worry for the pub industry is whether local authorities will use pubs and bars as cash cows, using licensing fees as a way to generate revenue. Local authorities are looking at charging town-centre pubs a levy to pay what it sees as alcohol-related costs of policing and street-cleaning. "We support local authority licensing involvement in implementing the changes to licensing laws, but only on the proviso that they are allowed to follow stringent national guidelines," says Scottish & Newcastle spokeswoman Claire Jobe.
Local authorities are squaring up for a fight on the issue of fees - lobbying the Government to change the bill to give them the power to set fees locally. The Government has said the net cost of licensing to pubs and bars will not go up under the new regime but local authorities want the bill changed. Local Government Association spokesman Mark Atkinson says: "There will be additional costs if there are no fixed opening hours - clearing up litter, licensing enforcement officers and police costs. We want to be able to use our discretion to correlate the fee to the cost to us."
Already facing the challenge of being open 24 hours a day, seven days a week is restaurant-bar Vingt-Quatre in Fulham, London. Alcohol is served until midnight and full meals from noon to 10.30pm, after which snacks and breakfasts are served round the clock.
"In the beginning the complications of operating 24/7 were quite daunting - we initially thought we should have three eight-hour shifts," says Vingt-Quatre proprietor Joel Cadbury. "But midnight is as late as you can ask anyone to start and we soon learnt you can't change a whole brigade at midnight if that is your busiest time. So now we have 19 staggered shift changes between 7am and midnight.
"Late opening was difficult to start with because it was new and some people didn't like it - working that late just didn't suit their metabolism. But there are plenty of people who work late and you have to find staff who suit working late," says Cadbury. "For people over the age where they feel comfortable going to a club with really loud music there is simply nowhere to go at present. New experiences where people can have a drink and a meal and some quieter music will develop because consumers want it."
The catalyst for change in government thinking was not the desire of consumers to drink later or to see publicans doing more business, but the police, who argue that crime and disorder spiral when all pubs close at the same time.
Drinkers rushing down a couple of extra pints before the bell and then finding themselves drunk and disorderly on town-centre streets at 11.30pm pose a major problem for the police. The bill contains a new power for the police to close licensed premises for up to 24 hours without notice where there is disorder.
This is why the new bill makes the prevention of crime and disorder the local authority's principal concern when deciding whether to grant a licence application. The Government says the bill will give individuals greater freedom to drink when they want to and at the same time give the public a greater say in whether licences are granted.
As well as its own policy on licences, councils will be asked to take central Government guidance into account when considering applications, but it has not yet been decided what this guidance will be, and the local authority can still choose to ignore the central Government guidelines and follow its own policy.
Licensing lawyer Craig Baylis, partner in solicitors Berwin Leighton Paisner, is concerned over parts of the bill that make life harder for people wanting to run late-night premises. "At present, if England play Germany in the World Cup, pubs can cram hundreds of people in," he says. "But local authorities will be able to use their new power to attach conditions to licences to start to put capacity limits on pubs. Capacity limits will lead to drops in revenue."
Although local authorities will have increased control over licensed premises, customers will ultimately dictate what new late-night experiences they want. The Government has decided the British drinking public are grown-up enough to be allowed to drink when they want - in 18 months change is coming and the industry cannot afford to be complacent.
Magistrates have broad discretion over the reasons for making licensing decisions.
The Government wants to squeeze out regional inconsistencies by fixing three specific licensing objectives on which decisions must be based.
\ The prevention of crime and disorder.
* The safety of the public, and in particular, the protection of children from harm.
\ The prevention of unreasonable public nuisance.
However, some in the industry argue that handing over decisions to elected bodies will actually increase inconsistency.
The new regime
OUT: Magistrates responsible for licensing.
IN: Local authorities responsible for all alcohol and entertainment licensing.
OUT: Individual licensed to sell alcohol from particular premises.
IN: Separate premises licence and portable personal licence that lasts for 10 years.
OUT: Separate licences for cinema, theatre, bar, public entertainment.
IN: One premises licence covers all activities.
OUT: Applicants for licences have to prove themselves to be "fit and proper".
IN: New applicants for personal licences need to pass a test on their knowledge of licensing law and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check. What offences would bar the grant of a licence have yet to be defined.
Details of the bill can be seen at www.homeoffice.gov.uk.
The new system will be regulated by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - www.culture.gov.uk.
Berwin Leighton Paisner - 020 7427 0299