The hospitality industry has reacted with dismay and disappointment to the Government's last-minute hike in licensing fees and the introduction of Alcohol Disorder Zones (ADZs), part of its latest proposals to combat binge-drinking.
The proposals, announced by Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, at a press conference in London, come just weeks before premises can start applying for new licences under the new Licensing Act on 7 February.
The Government's latest announcement means the one-off payment for a new licence jumps from the projected range of £80-£500 to a new figure of between £100 and £635.
On top of this, the annual fee paid by all licensed premises will rise from the proposed level of £40-£225 to £70-£350.
Town-centre pubs and clubs face extra costs, with application fees hitting £1,905 and annual charges of up to £1,050. Fees will be reviewed after one year.
Jowell also granted the police and local authorities new powers to penalise problem drinking areas by branding them ADZs (see left).
Other new measures include an immediate 24-hour ban on alcohol sales if pubs, bars or clubs are caught serving underage drinkers, and establishments caught selling to drunk punters could be hammered with a £1,000 fine.
The Government justified its 11th-hour changes by saying that the initial level of fees was not high enough for the licensing authorities to administer and enforce the new regime.
Jowell said: "Our current licensing laws are creaking under the strain. That's why we're reforming them - to make our towns and cities safe for all, not a free for all.
"The steps we are proposing today support the tough new measures in the Licensing Act 2003. They send out a clear message - we will not tolerate the disorder and anti-social behaviour that blights our town and city centres."
But industry representatives hit back at the new proposals. Mark Hastings, spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association, said: "These fees represent a huge hike on what the industry had been discussing with the Government until a fortnight ago.
"What is now desperately needed is transparency to show us exactly what this money is being spent on by the local authorities."
Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, said the Government's approach to the licensing reform had been "indecisive" and its latest move represented another about-turn.
"The Government has caved into pressure from local authorities who claim the new system, in which they are responsible for licensing, will cost them money.
"What will happen in 2006, after the first year's review, if the local authorities come back and ask for more? This could be a regular little earner for them."
Concerns have also been raised about the ADZs. "The people who decide whether an area is branded an ADZ are the police and the local authorities, both of whom have a vested revenue interest in naming one," Hastings said. "It's critical that an independent body should be set up to oversee the system."
Alcohol disorder zones
An ADZ would cover pubs and clubs in any area where authorities considered anti-social drinking to be a problem. If no improvement is seen over an eight-week warning period, licensed premises could be charged for any extra costs the local authority and police considered necessary. This could include extra policing, street cleaning or even healthcare.