Scrap council licensing committees, say peers

LICENSING committees should be scrapped as part of a radical overhaul of the system, a House of Lords committee has said.

In a review of the Licensing Act 2003, the cross-party panel concluded that the Government made a "substantial error" in setting up the committees when the planning system was already available to regulate the use of land and is well suited to handling applications and appeals.

However, the Local Government Association described the call as "unnecessary and ill-advised".

"The committee was shocked by some of the evidence it received on hearings before licensing committees," said chairman Baroness McIntosh of Pickering.

"Their decisions have been described as 'something of a lottery', 'lacking formality' and 'indifferent' with some 'scandalous misuses of the powers of elected local councillors'."

The committee is calling for planning committees to take on responsibility for licensing, saying they are far more effective, reliable and well equipped to make decisions that have a significant impact on communities and can be "life or death" to businesses.

Coordination between licensing and planning systems should begin immediately in all local authorities and licensing fees should be set locally, not nationally, it added.

Elsewhere, the report recommends that England and Wales follow Scotland's lead and introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol, subject to the Supreme Court ruling that it is lawful and the rollout north of the border proves effective in curbing excessive drinking.

It also said the Late Night Levy is "fundamentally wrong" in principle and practice, and the evidence suggests it does not cover policing costs as intended. Unless there are significant amendments, it should be repealed along with Early Morning Restriction Orders, which no local authority has introduced.

"Pubs, clubs and live music venues are a vital part of our cultural identity. Any decline in our cities' world-famous nightlife ought to be prevented and the businesses supported," Baroness McIntosh said.  

"But the night-time economy needs regulating; even in these areas of cities, residents have their rights. The current systems are not being used because they do not work."

Cllr Chris Pillai, the LGA's licensing spokesman, said the committee overlooked the fact that those most involved in working with the Licensing Act do not want another major overhaul of the system.

"Figures from 2016 show that of the more than 21,000 licence applications made to council licensing committees, less than one per cent were challenged. This reflects the fairness and sound basis licensing committees are using to make their decisions," he added.

"It will always be possible in any system to pull out examples where things haven't worked as well as they should have, and we agree that there is scope for the planning and licensing frameworks to link together more closely. However, putting planning committees in charge of licensing decisions will not tackle current flaws in the Licensing Act, and completely fails to take account of the pressures the planning system is also under."

The LGA said it supports the call for licensing fees to be set locally, as nationally set charges currently mean councils have to spend millions covering shortfalls in the cost of processing applications.

However, it opposes scrapping the Late Night Levy and instead called for more time to test its effectiveness in "more localised hotspots" rather than across entire local authority areas.

Cllr Pillai also said it was disappointing that the committee did not recommend introducing a public health objective when making licensing decisions, despite such a move being supported by nearly 90 per cent of directors of public health.  

"With many councils already making use of more scope to use licensing policy to shape local areas, no legislative change is needed," he said.

"Licensing and planning are fundamentally different functions which should remain separate."