Publicans face an uphill struggle to have their outdoor areas ready for the start of the smoking ban in England and Wales, industry figures have warned.
Trade association Business in Sport and Leisure (BSL) said the earliest operators could expect to see finalised ban regulations was November, adding that this would not give them enough time to change their premises.
Speaking at a licensing seminar hosted by solicitors Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) in London last week, Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of BSL, said: "We have been in talks with the Department for Communities and Local Government about a fast-track scheme for planning, but so far they have shown little interest. If that's the case it's going to be an extremely tight deadline for publicans to meet."
With a commencement date of summer 2007 in England, this could leave pubs as little as six months to seek the planning permissions required to adapt their outdoor areas. Welsh operators face an even tighter deadline, with the ban due to start in April 2007.
Craig Baylis, partner at BLP, warned changes to outdoor areas could also require a variation to be made to the businesses' premises (alcohol) licence, potentially drawing objections from local residents and adding further delay.
"While consumption of alcohol is not strictly a licensable activity under the 2003 Licensing Act, a number of councils have placed conditions relating to outdoor spaces on licences," he said. "I'd advise operators not to delay if they are planning changes."
Operators in Scotland, which introduced smoking restrictions in March, complained that a lack of resources at council planning offices created a bottleneck that left them unable to prepare fully.
Licensing Act... The fallout continues
Almost a year on from the start of new licensing laws in England and Wales, operators and councils are "reaping the effects of poorly drafted legislation," with a system that remains inconsistent and chaotic, according to Craig Baylis, a partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner.
He suggested the Elton Panel, an independent body reporting on the Licensing Act this November, would have plenty to address.
Last week, the contentious point of whether licensing fees should rise was reignited, with the Association of London Government (ALG) calling for a "fairer system" where pubs paid more.
Ahead of the Elton report, tourism minister Shaun Woodward will call his first meeting of the high-level ministerial steering group on licensing, which includes industry and council representatives.
By Chris Druce
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Published by: The Caterer