Tuesday 18 August 2020

Time to reform the way we manage licenses to serve alcohol in the London Borough of Barnet

 Firstly I must confess that the title is misleading. This is a national issue, but I believe that it is a very important issue locally. The UK has an extraordinarily cumbersome licensing burden on businesses wishing to sell alcohol, that generates unnecessary work for the police, puts a huge burden of work on inconvenienced residents and simply isn't fit for purpose.

The way we drink alcohol has evolved. The vast majority of problem drinking is not done in pubs and clubs. Just about every problem pub in the Borough has closed over the last twenty years. Problem drinking is far more prevalent where people are buying cut price alcohol from convenience stores and consuming it in public places. Because the trouble occurs away from the source, retailers are rarely held to account. Whilst a publican can lose their license if people misbehave in and around their premises, I cannot remember any convenience store losing its licence for selling super strength to street drinkers. There is little or no comeback on those creating the problem. 

If a high street tea room wants to serve sherry to old ladies with their cream tea's they have to jump through all manner of hurdles. The cost relative to the profits are fairly marginal and sensible people who might enjoy a little tipple are deprived of the ability to have a perfectly reasonable measure of alcohol. 

There are two things I'd like to see happen.

The first is a reform so that retailers and the hospitality industry are dealt with under different regimes.  I would abolish completely the need for a licensing application for any hospitality business where people are unlikely to drink too much and drinking is ancillary to the main activity. This would include Theatres, restaurants, tea rooms, hotels (for guests), music venues, churches and sports grounds. Any establishment where alcohol sales accounts for less than 25% of turnover should be able to sell alcohol without a licence. The caveat on this is that if they start attracting anti social behaviour, the exemption can be removed by the Council licensing team. For pubs and clubs where alcohol is the main business, then a licensing application is appropriate. As a general rule, I would say that any establishment where people are normally drinking half a bottle of wine or three pints (or less) should be exempt. So if you want a couple of glasses with your meal fine.

As for retailers, I think that they need more regulation, especially in problem areas. I would like to see the police be given the power to cease all off sales of alcohol in establishments associated with problem drinking. If an alcohol exclusion zone is imposed, all retailers selling alcohol within the zone should have strict limits on what they can sell. Street drinkers with problem habits would be dispersed by the simple requirement to travel further for alcohol. It would be in retailers interests to sell in a responsible manner as they would lose serious amounts of revenue when bans were imposed. The argument against this is that unscrupulous people will exploit the situation and bring in alcohol. I would like to see shops forced to label alcohol they sell. That way the source is traceable. I would make it illegal for shops to sell alcohol without such labelling. 

I would give exemptions to shops and outlets that are not associated with problem drinking. So high quality retailers such as Mill Hill Wines that sell premium products would not have to label bottles of Chateau Neuf Du Pape, but shops selling Special Brew for 50p a tin would. 

The problem with our society is that we always seem to penalise and over regulate the businesses that are responsible and play the game, whilst those that break the rule have few sanctions.

I would also like to see local councillors have a bigger role. They are elected by their local community, so they should be given more say in what businesses are able to operate. Sadly many pubs fall foul of NIMBY neighbours, who buy properties near existing businesses. I am all for agent of change legislation that says if you move in near an established venue or pub, you waive your right to moan about it. 

It should be easier to hold small events, serve a couple of drinks and enable a sense of community to be built. I say this as a festival organiser. Every two years, the Mill Hill Music Festival organises events around Mill Hill. We have to pay Barnet Council £30 for each temporary event notice and put this in ten working days before the event. We then get a call from the Police, who go through the motions of ringing us up to check the event. It is a waste of everyones time and money. All so a few people can have a glass of wine during the interval of our Opera and Jazz events.  A few years ago, Barnet Council tried to organise some live music at local libraries. A fine idea, but they forgot to get a licence, so the event was cancelled at the last minute. I thought that was ridiculous. That is why the whole thing needs reform. 

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