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Alcohol licensing reform could cause "trouble" for forecourts

22 December, 2010

Forecourt retailers with a licence to sell alcohol are being warned that “there may be trouble ahead” if new government proposals become law.

The Coalition government’s proposals to reform licensing laws, if adopted, will impact on any forecourt store that has a premises licence authorising the sale of alcohol or the provision of late-night refreshment.

Robert Botkai, partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said: “The proposals are poorly thought through by those who appear to have little practical experience of the workings of the current licensing laws. It is to be hoped that they will not survive the parliamentary process but I am not optimistic.”

If the proposals become law, local licensing authorities will have the power to prohibit sales of alcohol between 3am and 6am. Individual licence holders may be able to request a hearing to resist a restriction order.

In addition, or instead of this prohibition, the licensing authority may impose a levy on those venues (including forecourt stores) that are authorised to sell alcohol between 12 midnight and 6am. “The level of sales will not necessarily be taken into account, nor the impact that the store has on the night time economy,” said Botkai. “The level of the levy may be set locally and could be prohibitive for forecourt stores. The only way to avoid this levy would be to vary the licence removing the authorisation to sell alcohol from 12 midnight to 6am.”

The government also proposes that the Licensing Authority will, itself, become a responsible authority. “This means that the Licensing Authority may object to an application or instigate a review and then determine the application at hearing,” said Botkai. “Also, the Licensing Authority will no longer be restricted to take such steps as are necessary to promote the licensing objectives. This threshold will be changed to such steps as are ‘appropriate’.”

Other proposals state that the local Primary Care Trust and Local Health Board will become responsible authorities. “This will result in objections, presumably on the basis that the grant of a licence is not in the interests of the health of the local community,” said Botkai. “But ‘health’ is not a factor when considering a licence application. There may be confusion ahead.

“The government also proposes to drop the vicinity test so that anyone, anywhere, can take part in a licence application. We can expect national lobby groups to put in objections to applications, which could create a mess.

“Currently, a failure to pay the annual licence fee does not impact on the validity of the premises licence. The licence holder will owe a civil debt to the Licensing Authority and may be pursued in the courts.

The Government proposes that a Licensing Authority must suspend a licence for non payment of the annual fee, as long as the failure is not due to an ‘administrative error’. Suffice to say licences that should not be suspended will be suspended resulting in unnecessary loss in trade.”