The Committee visited the offices of Southwark Council on 15 September 2016 to see a session of the Council’s Licensing Sub-Committee.
During the visit the Committee observed two cases being heard by the Sub-Committee, and afterwards met privately with Councillor Renata Hamvas, the Chair of the Licensing Committee, and licensing officers, to discuss the licensing process as operated by Southwark Borough Council, and to hear about particular issues and concerns held by their councillors and officers.
The Committee first attended a session on the case of a Mediterranean Deli, located on a small one-way road in Bermondsey, which had applied for a licence to serve alcohol both on and off its premises.
The original application had requested permission to supply alcohol for consumption on and off the premises, to host indoor sporting events, live and recorded music, and non-standard opening times for festivities and public holidays. It was however announced at the hearing that, after objections from local responsible authorities, an agreement had been reached with the applicant that there would be no live music indoors or outdoors, recorded music only indoors, and that alcohol would stop being served 20 minutes before the agreed closing time of the premises. Furthermore, all conditions set by the police had been agreed upon. These included the installation and maintenance of a CCTV system, and limiting use of the outside area of the premises to a maximum of five smokers only, with no outside drinking permitted.
The Licensing Sub-Committee then witnessed a short presentation from the applicant, outlining his food-orientated business model and the measures he had taken, such as paying for private refuse collection, which he felt mitigated any negative impact his business might have on the local area. He emphasised that his application for live music, now withdrawn, had resulted from a misunderstanding that this was required to play pre-recorded background music. He further emphasised that his business operated throughout the day on a Southern European café model, and he had no intention of it becoming a late night drinking venue. However, he also noted that he had frequently used Temporary Event Notices within the previous year to test out the feasibility of a full premises licence, and these had been a success.
After the applicant’s presentation, councillors questioned him about how he intended to mitigate nuisance behaviours such as smoking or drunken customers. The applicant noted his installation of ash trays on the street outside his premises, and the business’s focus on serving food alongside alcohol. When asked to explain the value his business brought to the local area, he argued that it brought tourists to the area and also employed local residents.
Both the police and the Council’s environmental officer briefly noted that they had withdrawn their objections. However, a small group of local residents were also in attendance, and made clear they were extremely angry about the licensing of bars along the street in question, opposite where they lived. They explained that, over the previous twenty years, they had seen the area change dramatically as a result of more permissive licensing. They stated that public urination and defecation, lewd public sexual acts and general rowdy behaviour had become commonplace on their street, likening the experience to having been transported to “the middle of Millwall with a bunch of drunken football yobs”. The transformation of their previously quiet street in this way was “destroying their lives” and preventing them from sleeping more than two or three nights a week. They claimed the police did not properly understand or enforce licensing laws, while the Council seemed uninterested in helping them.
However, on further questioning it emerged that these complaints were, with some minor exceptions, not directed at this particular business, but at the wider licensing of various premises along the street, most of which were focused on serving alcohol rather than food. This was illustrated by the playing of a short video recorded by one of the residents to members of the Licensing Sub-Committee, showing noisy crowds gathered on the street at 6pm on a Saturday evening, though not actually outside the premises in question.
The councillors on the Sub-Committee agreed they would visit the street in question to see if a ‘Saturation Zone’ (established under the Cumulative Impact Policy), limiting the granting of further licences in the area, might be an appropriate measure for addressing residents’ concerns.
After the Sub-Committee’s private deliberation the Committee attended a second session which had been called at short notice to discuss an objection to a TEN filed by the owners of a pub in Bermondsey. The premises user and his father were planning to host an event at nearby open-air premises which they owned, to coincide with the annual Bermondsey Festival. However, following a similar event the previous year, where concerns had been raised by environmental protection officers about the presence of flammable straw bales and a lack of noise controls, the Council was considering this year whether to issue a counter-notice, which would block the use of a TEN at the open-air premises.
The business owners made clear that they were confused by the process, and were uncertain as to whether they were appealing a decision that had already been taken by the Council. The father explained that he would have liked greater dialogue with the Council, as opposed to what he perceived to be a confrontational, court-like system.
A lengthy and at times highly charged discussion ensued, during which a map of the premises was distributed. The business owners pointed to the fact that there had been no complaints associated with the previous year’s event, and that a similar event hosted by other nearby premises did not seem to be facing these problems from the Council. They also noted that while their notice to supply alcohol lasted until 11.30pm, in reality the previous year almost all customers had left before 9pm. It was further established that no straw bales would be present at this year’s event, and that additional fire safety and security measures would be in place.
While councillors criticised the business owners for not doing more to coordinate with the Bermondsey Festival organisers, they appeared to be broadly satisfied with this explanation. The hearing was then adjourned.
After witnessing the two hearings, the Committee met privately with Councillor Renata Hamvas, the Chair of the Licensing Committee, Jayne Tear, Southwark Council’s Principal Licensing Officer, and Debra Allday, Senior Licensing Lawyer, together representing the views of the Council. They discussed some of the more general issues and concerns held by the Council in relation to the Licensing Act 2003.
The Chair began by providing a general overview of licensing at Southwark, noting that on average there were one or two meetings of the Licensing Sub-Committee per week, with between one and three items per meeting. There had been a dramatic increase in licensing applications over the past few years, but no more money was available for more licensing officers—a problem common to many inner London boroughs. She drew particular attention to their use of Saturation Zones as a means of controlling the number of new applications, and the impact these were having on particular areas of Southwark.
The Principal Licensing Officer emphasised that Southwark sought to conciliate as many cases as possible before they reached the need for a hearing. She pointed out that the Licensing Act currently required that any hearing should take place within 20 days of an initial licensing application, which in practice only gave them around five days to attempt to conciliate all parties. She suggested that if hearings could be heard within 30 days, they could increase the conciliation period to 10–14 days, and potentially cut down on the number of hearings required.
When asked about the practicalities of conciliation, Ms Tear explained that the process normally began with a case officer compiling the relevant evidence. An informal meeting was then arranged, in which no resolutions were required. If this resulted in objections being withdrawn, the application could then proceed without the need for a hearing. Efforts were made to ensure that a meeting of all responsible authorities was held every three weeks, to ensure that there were no contradictions between their respective positions.
The licensing team also noted that when summary reviews were called for, police only had 48 hours at present to examine an application—a problem, especially when this fell over a weekend. They would accordingly like this extended to 72 hours. They wished to emphasise the cross-agency work and communication that went into this process, which they believed saved a considerable amount of time.
The Chair noted that sometimes the team observed businesses attempting to circumvent review procedures by transferring premises licences to relatives or associates, prior to a review hearing. In some cases they had seen husbands transferring licences to their wives and business owners transferring licences to their employees, sometimes even on the morning of the hearing itself. They suggested that, once a review had been called, Licensing Committees should be able to block any transfer of a premises licence to other individuals.
The Chair also highlighted problems with the appeals process. Up to eighteen months could elapse between an initial hearing and an appeal being heard against a licensing decision, during which time some businesses were using cheap, short-term fixes to avoid decisions being taken against them by the Council. The team recommended reducing this to a shorter, fixed time period between initial hearings and appeals being heard. Over the past five years they had experienced a dramatic 200% increase in appeals, and so far that year had had to deal with eight appeals—a very high number.
Councillor Hamvas mentioned a significant problem with keeping track of personal licences, and an inability to find out easily if a local licence holder had previously caused problems, or even committed criminal offences, in other parts of the country. This extended to magistrates, who did not have a convenient way of ascertaining whether individuals they were convicting might hold a personal licence which might need to be revoked.
The Chair stressed that the Council did try to coordinate licensing and planning efforts, but noted that the licensing and planning regimes were not formally joined up, and unless very specific criteria were met, planning officers were prevented from making representations against licensing applications. The licensing team gave the example of local premises which had been granted planning approval as a pool club. With time, the owners had begun to transform the venue into a night club which operated only on particular days, which attracted all the problems typically associated with night clubs. However, as the venue still also operated as a pool club, it was not infringing its original planning conditions, and planning officers were therefore prevented from intervening.
The licensing team further noted that there was a discrepancy between planning law, which required the Council to write to local residents notifying them of applications, and licensing law, which did not. They pointed out that at present they did integrate licensing and planning regimes to a certain extent, for example by offering longer hours to premises which already had planning permission to operate as a night club. Within their licensing policy, Southwark characterised different parts of the borough in different ways, and attempted to apply similar licensing conditions to similar areas of the borough based on these classifications.
The Chair also mentioned the rise in ‘problem churches’ in Southwark. Churches were largely exempt from regulation under the Licensing Act 2003, and some ‘alternative churches’ in the area had been exploiting this, setting up in a range of unsuitable accommodation and playing live music late into the night. They could deal more easily with this problem if churches were required to have regulated hours.
When asked about the differences between the costs of dealing with licensing applications and the amount they were permitted to charge for these services, the licensing team argued that the power to set licensing application fees should be devolved to local councils. There was at present a substantial discrepancy between the fees individuals and businesses paid for licensing applications and the much higher cost of administering these applications for councils, which they believed could best be addressed through locally-set fees.
The Committee asked Councillor Hamvas about the balance between applications for TENs from individuals and small community organisations on the one hand, and already licensed commercial premises on the other. The Committee was told that a substantial majority came from the latter group, who often used TENs to test new licensing arrangements before they applied for a permanent alteration to their licensing conditions.
The licensing team suggested that there should be two kinds of TEN—one for genuine community events hosted by non-licence holders, and another for commercial operators looking to extend their pre-existing licensing arrangements for particular occasions or to trial new operating hours or business models. The cost of the latter could then be increased above £21 to reflect the real cost of administering them, without deterring genuine community events being hosted by non-licence holders.
The licensing team further requested the ability to apply formal conditions to TENs. At present, they were limited to approving or rejecting (through the use of a counter-notice) a TEN, or, in the case of a venue where a premises licence or club premises certificate already applied, transferring those conditions across to the TEN. In practice, the Council and police might often informally agree conditions with TEN premises users, in exchange for not blocking them. They suggested that the Licensing Act 2003 should be amended to allow licensing committees to apply both new and pre-existing conditions to all TENs.
The Chair wanted to make clear she did not support any introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP), and instead favoured more targeted approaches to problem drinking behaviour which did not penalise responsible drinkers. Examples were their efforts to limit the sale of super-strength beer from local off-licences to 6% ABV or under, alongside measures such as limits on alcohol advertising in shop windows.
After the visit, the Committee was informed that the Licensing Sub-Committee had decided to grant the Mediterranean-style restaurant a premises licence, subject to the agreed conditions. They also decided not to issue a counter notice against the TEN at the open-air premises in Bermondsey, allowing the event to proceed as planned.
602 The Licensing Act 2003, paragraph 9 of schedule 1 grants exemptions from regulated entertainment for religious services and places of worship. However, no such exemptions exist for the sale of alcohol.