Licensing system ‘creaking at seams’

Lengthy processing times could affect businesses, lawyer says

By Gillian McKenzie

LOCAL authority cutbacks and increased bureaucracy associated with the 2005 Act have left the licensing system “creaking at the seams” in some areas.

Speaking at the Scottish Licensing Law and Practice Big Licensing Conference, licensing lawyer Archie MacIver said a combination of fewer staff and a greater volume of paperwork means applications are often taking longer to process.
In the case of variation applications, MacIver said a lengthy processing period can be the final nail in the coffin for some businesses.
“The trade, like everyone else, is working in difficult economic times,” he said.
“In many cases, applications for variation are almost a last gasp attempt to breathe life into an ailing business in the hope that the refurbishment, or the like which is proposed, may generate additional income to keep them going. When applications are taking a year to process, and, in some cases more than that, many businesses will not survive that.
“If you cast your mind back to the 1976 Act, applications for new licences effectively required to be processed within five weeks. In those days, too, there were far more new licences kicking about than there are nowadays.
“If we are lucky under the new regime, new licences might hit a board some nine weeks or so after they are lodged. Indeed, in many instances it is far longer than that.
“Let me make it clear, the comments I am making are in no way critical of the staff who are working for the boards. In my experience, uniformly, they are helpful, co-operative and do all that they can to assist; but the harsh reality is that there are simply not enough of them, and those that are left are drowning under a sea of paperwork.
“The double whammy of lack of staff and the outrageously bureaucratic nature of the new system is such that it is, in many areas, creaking at the seams and, frankly, at the point of meltdown.”
If the current time frame for processing applications continues, the licensing lawyer said a deadline should be imposed, by which time boards would be required to deal with applications otherwise a deemed grant would come into play.
“Businesses can no longer afford to do the decent thing and be understanding of the board’s difficulties in terms of staffing and wait inordinate lengths of time for their application to be processed,” said MacIver. “If they follow that line they will be out of business.”
MacIver also called on the Scottish Government to rectify some of the “problems” with the current legislation, which he said provide the same day-to-day difficulties now as they did in 2009.
“I have frankly lost track of the number of changes there have been since the implementation of the ‘new’ legislation but, yet again, late last year we received from the government the consultation paper on Further Options for Alcohol Licensing,” he said. “Surely before embarking on yet more change the government should ensure that the basic system is built on solid foundations.”
Quentin Fisher, head of the licensing team at the Scottish Government, told the conference the consultation, which closed on March 21, received 122 responses.
“The next steps are analysis and ministerial consideration,” he said.
“No decisions have been taken yet on the way forward.”