BACK in 2000, I was asked to comment on a White Paper proposing modernisation of liquor and licensing laws for this supplement – modernisation which some saw as heralding the '24- Hour City' or 'Café Culture'.
In short, at the time, I said the concepts of either were most unlikely to become a reality.
Since that White Paper, the Licensing Act 2003 was passed and came into force on November 24 2005, so we have now just completed five years under that legislation.
Looking back over those five years shows 24-hour drinking to be an urban myth as most informed views felt it would be, albeit it was a good headline at the time. Moreover, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, on average, pubs are only open 27 minutes longer since the Licensing Act was introduced.
A more significant statistic, however, is that in the last five years, over 6,000 pubs have closed. Closures, admittedly, not caused solely by legislative changes and increased competition brought about by the Act but also by the economic downturn since the third quarter of 2007. But, between 2005 and the end of 2007, there were significant increases in the number of new licences in the major towns and cities and such an increase in competition prior to the downturn has severely impacted on the trade of many operators.
The Government is committed to overhauling the current licensing regime in order to give more power to local authorities and police. A consultation was carried out and on December 1, 2010, it issued: ‘Responses to consultation: Rebalancing the Licensing Act’.
Amongst other things, the overhaul will give much stronger powers over the grant, refusal and revocation of licences from premises as well as increased powers over any bar or shop selling alcohol to children. It will allow local councils to charge more for late-night licences and it will ban the sale of alcohol at below cost price, although they do not yet have an answer to address the latter.
This, they say, will help them deal with alcohol-related crime and disorder, whilst also promoting responsible business.
While having many things to commend it, the re-balancing will be seen by many operators as more red tape when the sector generally is suffering from economic austerity measures, exacerbated with the rise in VAT. It does not address the well-held view that problem behaviour increasingly results from customers drinking at home before they hit the pubs and clubs.
So, just as the Licensing Act did not bring in the café culture as legislators expected, I doubt the re-balancing of the Act will solve all the problems it is setting out to do.
:: Nigel Westwood, partner, Licensed and Leisure, Sanderson Weatherall LLP. Tel: 0191 269 0107.