Renewed calls for licence fee rebate

Scottish Government urged to take action on licensing boards’ annual charges following COVID closures

pint pouring

RENEWED calls have been made for the Scottish Government to take action on annual premises licence fees as venues have been forced to close and had trading restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

SLTN has been contacted by operators who say there should be a rebate on the annual fee after businesses were forced to close for nearly four months due to the lockdown and have since been subjected to trading restrictions, including the current ‘levels’ system.

While the Scottish Government sets bands for premises licence application and annual fees (based on rateable value) and a maximum fee for each – ranging from £180 to £900, licensing boards are responsible for setting their own fees as long as they don’t exceed that maximum; the system is expected to be operated on a ‘cost neutral’ basis. Annual fees are due on October 1 each year.

Some boards, including Aberdeen, announced plans to cap annual licence fees for the on-trade in light of COVID-19. However, others are collecting fees in full.

Operators and trade groups have now repeated calls for the Scottish Government to step in and ask all licensing boards to cut fees; in July the Scottish Government asked local authorities to relax their planning regulations to help venues make use of outdoor spaces as the trade began to reopen after lockdown.

John Black, who runs the Volunteer Arms in Tillicoultry, said: “Why should we pay for something we haven’t used?

“We pay October to October; we’ve probably had six months [trade] so we’re paying for nothing. And with no money coming in how are we expected to pay it?

“Companies like Sky cut us some slack so there should be a rebate on the licence fees.”

Colin Wilkinson, managing director of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), said there has been a “mixed level of support” from boards.

“The SLTA appreciates that licensing boards are legally obliged to charge the annual renewal fees and approaches were made some months ago to the Scottish Government to have the law changed, however no such undertaking has been made,” he said.

“However, it is within licensing boards’ powers to reduce the level of the fees to any level and more should have been done to help the on-trade, which has been hit the hardest in the hospitality sector and which will be so vital to the success of local economic recovery.

“Let’s not forget a number of boards have made surpluses since the new licensing regime came into being, a system which is supposed to be cost neutral in operation and let’s hope there are enough on-trade licensed premises left for the boards to administer to at the end of this nightmare.”

Licensing lawyer Jack Cummins of Miller Samuel Hill Brown echoed calls for the Scottish Government to take action.

“Cash-strapped businesses crippled by the effects of the pandemic – closed for months or trading on a limited stop/start basis – could have their licences revoked for non-payment of the fees; that’s a positively ridiculous situation,” he said.

“In fact, it’s a disgrace to expect a pub that’s been mothballed or running on fumes for ten months to pay up to £900.

“As long ago as May, the Westminster Government wrote to licensing authorities in England and Wales urging them to take a light touch in relation to fee payments.

“The Scottish Government needs to step in now and give licensing boards some steer that supports the trade. In my view, at the very least, the payment deadline – October 1 – should be extended for a substantial period.”

Licensing lawyer Janet Hood said: “I can understand the fees issue from the trade’s perspective. Equally local authorities and boards depend on the money from fees and applications to function. And there’s a business rates holiday so that money’s not coming in.

“I think the question is why supermarkets are also getting a business rates holiday when they’re in boom time. They should, in my view, be paying fees and rates because they’re not suffering like hospitality. I think that’s a mistake on the government’s part.”

SLTN contacted the Scottish Government for comment on Friday (November 6) and again on Monday (November 9). On Wednesday evening (November 11), a spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The fee system operates independently of government, and fees are paid direct to licensing boards at a level set by licensing boards.

“While we understand why these calls have been made, these matters are for licensing boards and we note the approach taken by Aberdeen City licensing board to reduce fees by one third.

“There has been and continues to be significant Scottish Government support provided for businesses and the hospitality sector in light of COVID-19, and this includes for licensed premises.”