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The rush to relicense

04 August 2005
The rush to relicense

As the final moments before the cutoff point for licensing applications tick past, many of us will be wondering where it all went wrong.

Despite industry consultations, advertising and awareness campaigns, and a six-month-long application period, only two-thirds of operators are expected to meet the deadline on Saturday 6 August.

The question is: why? Craig Baylis, head of regulatory practice at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, said that while some clients had left things to the last minute, a proportion of his workload has been caused by "shambolic bureaucracy". Many people, he said, have struggled to work through their 21-page application forms or have had them sent back for petty reasons.

In one case, Baylis's client had a form returned by Crawley council because the applicant's signature was in blue ink rather than black.

There seems no margin for error," Baylis said. "It's turned into a bureaucratic nightmare."

The Licensing Act applies to any establishment wanting to sell alcohol, host public entertainment or trade after 11pm, and those that don't beat the deadline will lose their existing trading rights and have to reapply from scratch. Missing the deadline will not only result in extra costs, but it will also mean that, come 24 November when the act comes into force, some businesses could be forced to close their doors.

According to Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, the problems hark back to early February, when online application forms only became available on the first day when they could be submitted. "They should have been available much earlier," Cotton said. "They are complicated and long, and people haven't had enough time."

The difficulties did not stop there, however. The new regulations require businesses to supply plans of their premises with each application. But trade bodies have said that councils have been pedantic in insisting that these plans be drawn to a scale of 1:100.
In addition to this, existing surveys, such as fire escape plans, have been deemed unsuitable and many companies, including JD Wetherspoon and Pizza Hut, have been forced to have all their plans rewritten.

Huge hikes in the cost of the application process have also caused consternation in the industry. The British Beer and Pub Association's Christine Milburn estimates that the average cost of each application is about 2,000.

Licence fees are currently based on the rateable income of each establishment and, while the industry recognised that they needed adjusting, Milburn said the new fees were higher than expected. An independent review of these costs is being carried out to see if they are justified.

Overseeing the implementation of the Licensing Act is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). So far, it has fended off criticism by claiming that, while the application process may be onerous, it is simpler than the old system.

The new application form caters for all types of licences, from those that allow the serving of alcohol and hosting public entertainment to those for running late-night cinemas, theatres, restaurants and takeaways. Previously, applications for each of these had to be submitted separately. And whereas, until now, licences had to be frequently renewed, the new licences will last a lifetime unless the holder wishes to make changes.

This means savings of £2b to the industry over the next 10 years, claims the DCMS.

Recognising that many businesses may be tardy with their applications, the department has, in the past few months, worked hard to chivvy them along. It says that more than 400 awareness-raising advertisements have been placed in the regional press, and licensing minister James Purnell has been on a mini-tour of the country to spread the word.

Despite this, even the most optimistic DCMS predictions forecast that only two-thirds of current licensees will have submitted new forms by 6 August. Nick Bish, chief executive at the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, echoes the opinions of many when he says that small take-aways, village halls and independent restaurants are at greatest risk of missing the deadline.

The media's obsession with the ills of all-night drinking and alcohol disorder zones, he claims, has led the operators of many such businesses to believe that, unless they want a 24-hour trading licence, there's no need to reapply.

The extent of the fallout remains to be seen. A worst-case scenario could see a large number of businesses forced to cease trading a month before Christmas.

At the British Institute of Innkeeping, chief executive John McNamara said that contingency plans need to be put in place now. "There's a huge administrative problem, and the Government doesn't want to extend the application deadline," he said. "We must start talking now to come up with a plan."

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