Relaxing over a meal or drink, enjoying leisure time and being entertained are all important parts of our lives. These activities also play a vital part in making our towns and cities places where people want to live, work and socialise. The vast majority of people who enjoy a drink at the pub or a night at a concert do so safely and sensibly. Likewise, the licensed businesses providing alcohol or other types of regulated entertainment are, for the most part, well managed and operate responsibly. However, without proper regulation, these activities can create problems and cause harm to individuals and communities. Alcohol and entertainment licensing, therefore, plays a fundamental part in keeping us safe and healthy. It allows us to enjoy ourselves and promotes social responsibility within a framework that enables businesses to prosper.
Since the Licensing Act 2003 came into force in 2005, councils in England and Wales have had a statutory role as licensing authorities. Nearly 15 years later, councils continue to use the legislation to positively influence and shape local areas. The LGA’s recently published ‘Licensing Act 2003 – councillor’s handbook (England and Wales)’ has pulled together some examples of best practice, alongside an overview of the legislation.
Elected members play two key roles in licensing. First, councillors have the power to shape what the licensed economy looks like, by developing a clear vision for the night-time economy, underpinned by a statement of licensing policy. Second, as decision-makers, councillors also play a key role in balancing the interests of those who may be affected by an activity and those who wish to enjoy those activities or rely on them for income and employment.
There are plenty of examples of how councils are carrying out their role effectively, but there is always room for improvement. While to some extent the Act has been successful in driving positive changes in drinking habits, and there has been an overall reduction in alcohol-related crime, some issues persist.
The latest statistics show that in more than half of all violent incidents, the victim believed the perpetrator to be under the influence of alcohol. Rates of hospital admissions for alcohol also remain high, and some authorities struggle to manage issues such as anti-social behaviour and vulnerability related to licensed premises. Of course, councils cannot address these complex challenges alone, but the handbook explores the tools councils have to manage some of these issues. The LGA has also published a set of case studies focusing on approaches to managing issues in the night-time economy.
A House of Lords select committee undertook post-legislative scrutiny of the Act in 2016, and the handbook picks up on the committee’s discussion of licensing committees. Peers felt they had seen and heard about examples of poor practice by licensing committees. They made a number of recommendations relating to this – the most far-reaching being that the functions of licensing committee should be transferred to planning committees.
Although government did not accept this recommendation, it did support recommendations around the training of licensing committee members. While the LGA is clear that councils are best placed to decide on the form and frequency of training, the handbook sets out some guiding principles for those authorities seeking to review or strengthen approaches to decision-making.