Text of an article published in Licensing Review July/August 2008

by Lionel Starling local authority Licensing Officer


1) Where the Licensing Act 2003 is concerned, the project phase is now history; we have passed through the 'becoming routine' phase and are now firmly in the "What can this thing do?" phase. In our imagination, we can now embark on a spot of summer pruning. Along the way, we can look at some wayward motivations.

2) A conspiracy theorist might be looking at share-holdings in paper manufacturing companies, to try to understand how in these eco-conscious times the Act drives such a wasteful and pointless consumption of plain white paper. I doubt they will find an answer there.

3) The obsessive extravagance of the statutory forms has been mentioned before. A page for theatre. For theatrical performances in off-licences? A page for indoor sport. In wine bars?

4) Not only thisbut a spreadsheet for every day of the week and two different types of exception!

5) We live in an age when home insurance is arranged by telephone and they ask "How many bedrooms do you have?" and "Have you made a claim in the past five years". After that, you are in.

6) At this point, I can divulge a State secret. When someone applies for an off-licence, having ensured that they want nothing else, I offer them a form with all of the entertainment option pages missing. We deal with customers on a day by day basis. We care about them and we want to ease their burden of paperwork. Shocking isn't it?


7) Proposed departures


8) A sane model would be a form that presents a standard package for the general business type and then invites proposed departures from that on a summary page. The lazy importation of the phrase 'of a like kind' achieves nothing. I patiently explain to customers that whilst nobody has any idea what that particular section means, one day the High Court may enlighten us all and at that point those who failed to tick the necessary boxes will find themselves without - erm - whatever it is.

9) Rectifying that would of course cost. Better by far to ask for it now. The 'facilities for' section is quite fun. A 13Amp socket is a facility for plugging in a bass guitar. It is, ergo, a facility. The perplexing element is the notion that a 13Amp socket can be present at certain hours of the day but be absent at other times.

10) Going back a time, the swimming baths in Stepney (dangerous territory here, as a historian will no doubt jump in, as it were, and correct me) could be converted so that the pool was covered over in the evening for ballroom dancing to take place. Maybe I am thinking of Hollywood.

11) In any event, the dance-floor 'facility' was not there on a twenty-four hour basis. Could that explain the hours and days grid on those pages of the form ? Perhaps. Although since the switch-over could happen at any time, much the safest thing would be to ask for twenty-four hours, just to be on the safe side...

12) The "capacity in which you sign this form" is a gem. A test both of logic and of memory. As well as pruning, we could maybe do a bit of transplanting and insert this question about capacity into the section which deals with capacity.

13) That would be good.


14) Four little boxes


15) All that remains is the Operating Schedule. The words have the resonance of something one would weigh on a pair of scales, with a half brick on the other side to balance it. Just four little boxes though - and a fifth for "all of these". It is the ultimate exam nightmare. Can it possibly be that the right answer is to put 'none' in every box ? Only the brightest and most confident student is going to have the panache to assert that their restaurant is already regulated within an inch of its life and frankly needs no more red tape.

16) Some clues for the hapless customer would be nice but alas 'consultants' may well have an eye to the potential of offering 'monitoring' services and advise a shed-load of conditions. Saying "leave that blank" may not convey the right air of professional mystique. Those who offer training courses may also lean towards recommending an extensive catalogue.


17) Swedish case law


18) To digress for a moment, there is a splendid statement of the obvious in the Thwaites case. The magistrates demonstrably allowed their personal prejudices to get in the way. They took it absolutely as read that the licence they were being asked to dispense was to be viewed as a privilege.


19) The applicant was plainly trying to "take advantage". It seems that nobody assisted them with the nugget of Swedish case law which might have helped. Had they been familiar with the writings of Thomas Paine (or even the history of cremation), they might have comprehended the notion that an individual has inherent freedoms, which can be qualified and constrained only with just cause, for the general good.

20) Premises licences are the embodiment of a set of restrictions or qualifications of various freedoms. They are handcuffs clamped on in the expectation of preventing nuisances and harms. Emphatically they are not sweeties doled out in a grand manner to lesser mortals who must therefore come bearing justifications.

21) The onus of justification rests entirely on the issuer, to explain why they are interfering. Lots of sage nodding at this point. Looking around though, were these magistrates just an aberration, an unusual cluster of heretics? In effect, the High Court denounced them as such. The judgment was pretty withering.

22) In a licensing context however we must acknowledge that they represent the mainstream. Institutions tend naturally in their direction. It is an ugly thing to say but he (or she) who casts down indulgences from on high will tend to derive a sense of importance from that arrangement. Their discretion to give or not to give affords them status. Which they like.

23) So the failure of an applicant to set out a decent weight of volunteered constraints, preferably at a heavy financial cost, is perceived as disrespectful. Applicants are drawn into flattery and barter; they are considered upstart radicals if they assert simply that they plan to run their business in an effective and professional manner and are more than capable of doing so without offering up any conditions at all.

24) If the sentiment of the High Court was really taken to heart, that would of course be the norm.

25) Going back to the form, we have done enough work on it I think. It now comprises two sides of A4, set out in plain English. We have saved nine sheetsof A4. Ten sets of each (the applicant keeps a copy!); that is ninety sheets per application; multiplied 180,000 times. In real terms, 81 metric tonnes of paper. Quite a lot.

26) This brings us nicely on to the question of the ten separate sets. Sadly, the really interesting statistics are not kept. We can make an intelligent guess though. Four of the responsible authorities combined submit a thousand times more representations than do the remaining four combined. I may be wrong. It could be ten thousand times more.

27) This is because the selection of four of them was fundamentally misconceived. The Fire Brigade have their own toolbox of regulatory controls and have no need to raid ours. About all they could possibly do is make some general noises at a review hearing, to the effect that the premises are badly managed, in their experience.

28) (Against that background, it is scandalous and irrational that licensing plans have to show fire safety features. The information is no more relevant to the Licensing Act than whether or not they have paid for their television licence.)

29) Planners have their say through the planning process. They are perplexed as to why they are consulted, when any comment relevant to their discipline would of necessity be ultra vires. Health and Safety have the same problem. If it is broken they can mend it themselves. After the duplication of effort, what is there left for them?

30) That just leaves Child Protection and this is where the greatest irony of all is to be found. Out of the blue someone came up with the suggestion that they be included in the list and the rest is history. It must have seemed logical, at a very superficial level. As a result they are now besieged with mountains of paper.

31) Their task is to comment on premises - about which they know nothing. When people are being evaluated (an area where they are qualified to comment) they have no role at all.

32) In a climate in which when anything goes wrong, they always get the blame, they have been burdened with a flood of application forms which just might, one day, contain something which they should have noticed and acted upon. Do they therefore mind their backs and employ someone to sift through it all and tick a box? If they do, they divert precious resources away from safeguarding children.

33) Happily, they are sensible people with a conscience. So they buy a dedicated In tray with a built-in shredder.

34) As the observant among you will have noticed, scrubbing the superfluous four from the list has now bumped our paper saving up to 113 metric tonnes since the Act was introduced. Without counting envelopes. Imagine the postage costs on that.

35) Another thought to end with. Perhaps one out of a thousand temporary event notices is worthy of note. The authorisation is as of right, except in the very rare case that crime is in prospect.

36) The police have only forty-eight hours to comment but nevertheless applicants are compelled to give ten working days notice, even for events so banal in their consequences that it would be scandalous for the police to divert the least energy in their direction.

37) The idea that the ten days are there to give the police time to 'prepare' is laughable. The sky has not fallen in since temporary event notices were introduced, despite vast numbers of them having been sought. They represent an exemption from normal requirements and the exemption is simply acknowledged.

38) They are a polite informative, not a request. Why then are they not a simple over the counter or down-loadable ticket, like a stamp or a fishing permit ?

39) The case for rationing is clear enough but that is just a matter of counting. Given that the police have only forty-eight hours in which to comment, it must make sense for the full ten days notice to be waived, in any case where the police have nothing to say in the time available to them.

40) In an age when practically every process is e-enabled (and is required by statute to be so in local government) temporary event notices are a prime candidate for seamless online service.

41) For something conceived of as 'light touch', the full life history application form is way over the top. Are the police really going to run PNC checks on the Women's Institute

September 2008