Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 2003

* A Price Worth Paying? *

The devil is in the detail of the government's licensing reforms

Much of the coverage of the government’s proposed licensing reforms has focused on the possibility of greatly extended opening hours for pubs. But when you look into it more deeply there are so many negative aspects that you have to wonder whether, on balance, pubs and drinkers would be better off without it.

  • control of licensing will be transferred from impartial magistrates to local authorities, opening up the possibility of bureaucratic delay, inconsistent decisions and political interference
  • the cost of applying for a licence is almost certain to increase substantially
  • licensees of even the smallest and most basic pubs will need to draw up “operating plans” detailing every aspect of their business which will be scrutinised by licensing authorities
  • the formal consultation of residents over licensing decisions will lead to the hours of pubs in residential areas becoming a political battleground - and it is usually a minority of joyless Nimbys with too much time on their hands who are most vocal on such matters. There is no guarantee that pubs will even be allowed to keep their current hours. The community local may become an endangered species.
  • a special licence will be needed for all music performances, even just one bloke with an acoustic guitar, which is likely to greatly reduce the amount of live music in pubs
  • the concept of drinking-up time will be abolished, meaning that pubs will have to apply for longer hours just to cover their current pattern of trading, and it will not be clear to customers when is the latest time they can expect to be served.
  • while closing times may well be much later, it is highly likely that pubs will be encouraged to apply policies of no admission after a certain hour, to prevent rowdy pub-crawling gangs roaming the streets in the small hours. The picture of the shiftworker popping in to Wetherspoon’s for a couple of pints at half past three in the morning is unlikely to be reflected in reality
  • the general presumption against admitting children to bars will be removed, so that children can be admitted to all areas of pubs, at all times, unless a licensee risks being labelled as churlish by taking a positive decision to exclude them. In theory it will even be possible for unaccompanied children to be admitted to pubs for food and soft drinks, although it's hard to see licensees being keen on that idea
Of course the possibility of pubs being allowed to stay open after 11 pm is a good thing. But when a supposed move of liberalisation comes from a government that, on issues from pistol shooting to trial by jury, has shown that it has hardly a liberal bone in its body, you have to view it with considerable scepticism. In the words of Stuart Neame, of Kent independent family brewers Shepherd Neame, “Talk of longer opening hours is just spin to divert us from the Government's real objective - to subject pubs to tight political control”.

Anyone who dismisses these concerns as mere carping should remember the Beer Orders, which many were convinced would open up a new era of freedom and choice, but ultimately proved disastrous for traditional pubs and beer. As these reforms may well turn out to be.

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