Councils have risen to the challenges facing the licensed sector during COVID-19, but greater local flexibilities would be better for businesses.
Business closures and restrictions on people’s movement arising from the response to the coronavirus pandemic have had a significant impact on the licensed sector.
Pubs and clubs have been forced to close, demand for taxis has fallen considerably and businesses like kennels have seen custom largely disappear as pet owners’ holidays are put on hold.
As a result, councils have been receiving a large number of requests from licensees for advice about how they should be operating their businesses in a safe and legal way once they are able to open, and for support at a time where normal operations have been disrupted and the viability of some businesses is under threat.
Councils’ licensing teams have also had challenges to contend with as officers and members work through how to manage practically the administration of licensing and decision making while working remotely.
The LGA has been lobbying government to provide detailed guidance for councils around licensing to support consistency. While government has not given detailed responses to many of the issues arising, it has instead encouraged councils to take a pragmatic approach where there is discretion to do so.
In March, Kit Malthouse MP, Minister for Crime and Policing, wrote to chairs of licensing committees to endorse this approach, which largely reflects what has already been happening.
“Legislation has not had the flexibility to allow councils to make concessions for those businesses forced to close”
In the absence of guidance from central government, the LGA developed some practical help for councils on approaches to managing licensing during the pandemic, which reflects on the practices and approaches being taken by some local authorities.
The guide sets out some key principles and picks up on issues around fees, procedures and hearings, as well as dealing with non-compliance. The guidance, alongside other useful information related to licensing, is hosted on the LGA’s COVID-19 hub (see www.local.gov.uk/coronavirus).
Councils have risen to the challenges that have presented themselves. Licensing committees have been pioneering the use of video conferencing to run ‘virtual’ hearings; digital licences have replaced physical ones; and, where possible, temporary licences have been issued so that people can continue to work.
One of the key challenges, however, has been where legislation has not had the flexibility to allow councils to make concessions for those businesses forced to close. For example, councils have come under pressure from pubs and bars to refund or reduce annual licence fees but, as these fees are set centrally, councils do not have the discretion to do this.
The LGA has long argued for the localisation of licensing fees and this is perhaps a timely reminder of why the flexibility this would offer would be better for councils and businesses.
As the country takes tentative steps towards re-opening businesses and licensed premises, it is imperative that government provides the clear guidance and support that is needed for them to open safely, and for councils to be able to regulate this effectively to protect the public.