Licensing delays cause concern

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The length of time that some licensing boards are taking to issue licences is proving concerning. Why does it take Glasgow 16-24 weeks to issue them, but Edinburgh only 6 weeks? Annabelle Love investigates.

Launching a new bar, club or restaurant in the current economic climate is a challenging and stressful business, with plenty of pitfalls to avoid along the way.

From problems with refits, suppliers and dealing with old, sometimes rundown or listed buildings to securing financial backing it can be a tricky process – even for those with years of experience in the trade.

One of the main areas that can be a source of pressure concerns issues around licensing – particularly the length of time it currently takes to get a new premises licence or a variation – processed. Anecdotally, some feel that these delays may result in certain areas potentially missing out on lucrative development deals – and the jobs that go with them – when investors vote with their feet and choose places where applications are processed more speedily.

Gone are the days, under the old system, when it took just five weeks and a day to get an application through and most businesses face anything from two to three months – and in some cases very much longer – before they get the green light.

Licensing specialist Archie Maciver, of Brunton Miller Solicitors, says, “Under the new system you are finding that, in certain board areas – and I would stress certain but not all, transfer applications are taking eight weeks and more.

“With an application for a new licence, you are doing very well in some areas if that’s dealt with within five months but again, in fairness, there are other boards which are speedier than that.

“There are some boards where variation applications are taking well in excess of nine months and that clearly is just unacceptable.
“I would certainly say that most applications should be capable of being dealt with within eight to nine weeks for new licences and variations. Transfers under the new system, four to five weeks should be readily achievable.”

He adds, “If you’re dealing with the boards where applications are taking considerably longer than others to be processed, then you can have a situation where a prospective investor in the area, once they know of those timescales, will say, ‘No, we’re not going to bother doing that, we’ll look at some other part of the country’. It’s impossible to put a figure on that, all I could say is that, yes, there have been instances where investors have decided not to proceed because of the length of time that they know the process takes. If a development doesn’t take place then clearly the jobs it might have created don’t materialise.”

So what is the picture on the ground? In Edinburgh, for example, which has 2,104 licensed premises, a total of 95 applications for premises licenses were received in 2014/15 and all but one was processed and granted.

The Licensing Board meets once a month and the council says that both new premises licence applications and non-minor variations are heard within about eight weeks of the date that they are lodged.

But the situation is quite different in Scotland’s biggest city. While Glasgow has slightly fewer licensed premises, at 1,853, it also has a higher number of total licensing applications to process than anywhere else in the country.

Last year the Board received applications for 71 premises licences and 138 applications for major variations. The Board says it can’t say exactly how long waiting times are but aims to deal with most applications for new premises licences and variations within four to six months. It says 88 % of licences are processed within that time – meaning that over a fifth, are not. In the case of variations, only 66 % of these are processed within the target time.

A spokesman for Glasgow Licensing Board admits that there has been a problem – but says that steps have been taken to improve the situation, including increasing the number of staff.

He said, “Overall 88% of all applications are processed within our target times, although we accept there has been a build-up of cases in certain areas.
“The unexpected impact of the introduction of our policy on Sunday 11am opening, which drew forward a large volume of more complex applications, has undoubtedly had an impact.

“We have reviewed our processes, made appropriate adjustments to how applications are handled and we believe this will improve the flow ofapplications through the system.

“The number of staff trained in handling liquor licensing applications has also more than doubled in recent years and this will help us address any build-up of applications.

“Glasgow Licensing Board meets at least once a month and always deals with a very full agenda of cases, which is unlike many other licensing authorities.”

Away from Scotland’s biggest cities, license applications still commonly take two to three months to process. The average current waiting time for premises and variation applications to be processed in South Lanarkshire, for example, which has 716 licensed premises, is ten weeks and in the Scottish Borders applications for both premises licences and variations are heard within two to three months.

But in South Ayrshire, which has 423 licensed premises, applications for both premises licences and variations go to the next available Board, usually a minimum of six weeks after they have been lodged.

And in North Ayrshire, which has 400 licensed premises, the council says applications for new premises licences and non-minor variations are usually determined within two months of being lodged. But many others – including transfers, minor variations, extended hours, occasional and personal licences – are granted within a week.

Mr Maciver believes that the main problem is the lack of personnel dealing with licence applications, rather than failures on the part of the personnel who are there.

He says, “I think it’s important to get across that the problem is not with the people who are working for the Boards. They are, to a man and woman, usually very diligent and doing their level best – quite simply there are not enough of them. The number of people involved in licensing in most board areas has been radically reduced over the past few years. The system is much more bureaucratic, there is an increase in the paperwork and a reduction in the personnel to process it so you’ve got an equation that’s pulling in opposite directions.
“Really there has to be an improvement in the number of folk who are employed to make the system work.”

A second area of concern for many in the licensed trade is the lack of consistency between different Licensing Boards – from the differences in forms that applicants have to fill out to the lack of parity in fees set by Boards themselves – especially those for variations.
Most, including South Ayrshire and the Scottish Borders, hover around the £200 mark, although in East Ayrshire it is just £125, while in Edinburgh the fee is £130, and in Glasgow it is £165.

But in South Lanarkshire, the fees for a variation are set at two thirds of the cost of a premises licence application fee, which is based on Rateable Value – so there it could set you back by up to £1,333.

A spokesman for South Lanarkshire Council said, “The process for dealing with a major variation application is the same as an application for a premises licence and this is reflected in the fee.”

Obviously Boards need to balance their books – but it could be argued that a standard fee, or one that is calculated in the same way everywhere, would make for a more level playing field.

Mr Maciver says, “I know that, within Board circles, they quite properly take the view that to charge only £10 for an occasional licence application doesn’t go anywhere near covering the cost of processing that application. On the other side of the coin there are some boards that charge through the nose for variation applications. They have got to try and balance their books somehow. The issue really has to be addressed nationally to try and get an overall solution to it.”

But is further legislation the way forward?

Another practitioner says that she feels the system is already over-complicated.

She says, “Changes to licensing laws, with at least five different pieces of legislation introduced in less than ten years, have made the system so complex that the ‘average Joe’ would struggle to understand what they need to do in order to keep themselves right.”
Mr Maciver agrees.

He says, “There has been so much legislative change recently, or at least certainly since the 2005 Act, that it’s impossible for licensed traders to keep up with all the changes so we are never keen on seeing any more change.

“Notwithstanding that, I do think the question of fees has to be looked at to create a fairer system and secondly, I think we desperately need to have a consolidated piece of legislation where we look at all the different pieces of the licensing legislation that are brought under one heading because at the moment you’ve got jump all over the place to try and find the answers that you are looking for.”

It seems that less change, but rather more consolidation is the way forward when it comes to shaping the licensing process into one that is faster, fairer and less confusing for everyone.

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