Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More of a whimper than a bang

So, after months of doom-saying from the Tories and Liberal Democrats - backed by hysterical elements of the media, the new licensing bill came into force last week and...

...society didn't come to an end.

There's a surprise.

Predictably, only a thousand places in the UK have been granted 24-hour licenses and two thirds of those are supermarkets and the like. For the remainder, many will be hotels or casinos and only a handful will be pubs. Only around 1% of old license holders were ever expected to apply for a twenty-four hour license, but the true figure proved to be around half of that. I got my forecast for Birmingham a little wrong - I thought that a few might apply, but in fact, none of the 63 all-day licences have been granted to pubs. I'm not surprised - there's little commercial advantage in opening round the clock unless you actually want to attract alcoholics as your main source of trade. More likely, extended licenses are likely to be used to cover special events, such as major sports matches in other time zones across the planet.

What has been largely ignored by the press has been the new powers given to the police, council and ordinary residents to take action against nuisance venues. The police can close a problem bar for twenty-four hours - a huge potential loss to businesses often run on thin margins in a very competitive market. Local councils can draw up a licensing policy in the same way as they create planning guidelines and will be responsible to the local community. Residents can object to licenses and can even demand that the licensing committee review a decision if problems arise. (If you can dig it out, there was a very balanced article on the new Act in the Birmingham Post on Wednesday - sadly not in the online edition).

Curiously, this is one aspect of deregulation that those stern critics of business red tape in the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties (soon to be merged) can't stomach. This is actually a very good example of rights and responsibilities - the government has removed a set of 90-year old wartime restrictions to allow us to decide for ourselves how and when we drink. In return, those who sell alcohol have to do so responsibly or they will face losing their business.

The extension in hours won't make a lot of difference - the alcoholics always managed to get their booze from the supermarkets or during a lock-in with a friendly landlord. This isn't about enabling drinking round the clock, but about enabling communities to swiftly tackle shops that sell alcohol to under-age drinkers and to deal with pubs that cause local nuisance.

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