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All change for licensing laws

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By November this year the licensed trade will enter a new phase of licensing law. The 2003 Licensing Act, which is expected to come into force by then, is designed to simplify licensing in England and Wales and provide operators with more flexibility in the way they run their businesses.

Make no mistake, this isn’t just a tweak to the existing law – it’s a fundamental change. Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell believes the change marks the biggest alteration to liquor licensing for a century.

Under the terms of the new act, the country’s 113,000 on-licences have to adjust to a completely new regime. In the short term, you must be registered with the new system by the implementation deadline of 7 November or face prosecution.

Changes in the system include splitting the existing alcohol licence into personal and premises licences and drawing together the six existing licensing regimes into one. This will cover all licensable activities an owner wishes to run on the premises. Last, and most controversially, the changes will mean a switch of licensing responsibility from magistrates to local councils, which introduces a political dimension.

Future battles aside, all councils have published their licensing policies ready for 7 February. This is the first appointed day, after which councils begin processing submissions from licensees under the new system. To ease transition it will run in tandem with the existing regime until the November changeover.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport believes the new regime, which theoretically allows 24-hour opening, will create a café culture similar to our Continental neighbours, reducing the street violence that currently occurs at kicking-out time.

But the new regime is likely to cost the majority of hospitality companies more than it did before. A personal licence costs £37, and premises licences are divided into six bands based on the non-domestic rateable value of the business and will range from £80 to £500.

An annual renewal fee, which will range from £40 to £225, will also be payable for premises licences. Estimates suggest pubs will pay £150, while large hotels could be hit with a £500 bill.

Views from the front line

Rob Westwood-Payne, solicitor at licensing specialist Heatons:

The Licensing Act 2003 will affect major parts of your business, and your response now will determine whether you make a seamless transition from one licensing regime to the other. However, there are potential stumbling blocks. For example, the circumstances in which a “variation application” should be made – covering changes to the type of activities carried out on the premises – remain unclear, and there are new laws governing children on the premises.

Business rates are due to be revaluated in April, and their effect on the licence fees is unknown. It also remains to be seen whether councils cope with conversion applications within the six-month time limit. If they don’t, licence applications have to be thrown out and the process started again.

Businesses still unsure of the procedure should contact a licensing specialist now, and apply to their local council as soon as possible after 7 February.

Audrey Lewis, cabinet member for licensing at Westminster City Council:

Councils, licensees and lawyers alike are beginning to doubt that the new era will start on 7 February, making it hard for us to plan how we will staff and manage the new laws.

In Westminster, we will go from licensing 570 premises to 3,600, yet bizarrely the Government’s proposed fee bands mean we will be bringing in less money. We have calculated that Westminster alone will be running at a net deficit of £4m a year.

I’m concerned that many in the trade will see councils raising their concerns about the financial implications of the new laws as being a “them and us” situation, but I’m keen to stress that’s not the case.

We find it bizarre that a small country pub won’t be paying much less than a large-capacity nightclub. The new licensing laws offer great opportunity, and by working together we can make 2005 a great success.

Key contacts

See the DCMS website, where you can sign up for a regular licensing newsletter:

Or check out:

Licensing Act 2003 – timeline

10 July 2003 Licensing Act receives Royal Assent.

7 July 2004 to date Guidance and fee structure announced.

7 January 2005 Deadline for councils to publish licensing policies.

7 February 2005 First appointed day; councils begin processing licence applications.

7 November 2005 (date may change) Second appointed day – end of old licensing laws. New premises licences given effect.

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