One year after the Licensing Act received royal assent, the Government has at last published a timetable for its implementation.
While this new document means that local authorities in England and Wales now have some indication on how to proceed until the act is introduced in November 2005, the licensing trade must ensure that it too is properly prepared beforehand.
A combination of prolonged political infighting and mixed messages has left the trade confused by and, at times, indifferent to the act. And with 16 months still to go until the act kicks in, operators remain unenthusiastic.
Despite this, and the unsettling absence of any cost guidelines from the new document, now is undoubtedly the time to take action. With the squabbling over, operators are at last in a position to get involved in the consultation process and ensure that they prepare themselves as best they can for the introduction of the new regime.
Battles between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) - which views the legislation as a popular means to curb violence in town centres at turning-out time - and the Home Office - which is worried about the short-term effects of extended opening - have stalled the guidance.
The Daily Mail's almost puritanical crusade against the new act hasn't helped and has certainly heaped pressure on the Home Office to ensure the maintenance of law and order in town centres. Add to this the recent focusing of attention on binge-drinking, and any attempts to usher in 24-hour drinking become even more sensitive.
With these fears to assuage, the new guidance has been carefully drafted to reinforce the message that the act will give local authorities and the police more power to close down premises or withdraw licences.
"Although the tone of the debate around licensing may have changed, the nuts and bolts of what we, the licensed trade, will be getting remain the same," says Mark Hastings, communications director at the British Beer and Pub Association.
What this means is that the expected liberalisation of England's antiquated licensing laws, little changed since the start of the 20th century, will still go ahead - which is good news for the trade.
The most contentious issue in the legislation is the scope for operators to adjust their hours according to the local market they serve, theoretically heralding 24-hour opening. However, a combination of residents' objections, local authority reluctance and staff costs has led industry leaders to predict that dramatic change is unlikely.
Liberalisation does mean, though, that operators will be able to tailor their opening hours and services to the needs of their local markets, allowing them to compete on an even playing field with our European neighbours.
The new regime also means that the six existing licence types (alcohol, public entertainment, cinemas, theatres, late-night refreshment house, and night caf‚) will be unified. Local authorities will take over from magistrates as the issuing authorities, and the integrated system should bring cost savings from reduced legal fees and red tape.
So, what next? The Government has yet to publish the final fees that operators will have to pay for their new licences. It has been suggested that it will cost £100 to £500 to register a premises, with a £50 to £100 annual renewal fee, subject to the size of premises. Hastings doesn't expect any significant change even though the DCMS remains in consultation with the Local Government Authority, which says licensing will cost its members money.
The DCMS says that it will release pricing details in the next four to six weeks, but the anticipated outcome is for single-unit independents to pay slightly more than they do now, while some of the bigger operators, especially nightclubs, will be laughing all the way to the bank.
In the meantime, pubs, bars and restaurants should get involved, says solicitor Brian Hardie, director of leisure training for the hospitality industry at law firm Howes Percival in Norwich. Local consultations will take place between now and 7 February next year.
Hardie feels that it's essential that the trade participate in consultations to ensure that local councils don't get derailed by residents' groups or personal bandwagons.
"Operators should write to their licensing officer and say they want to be included in the consultation process," he says. "Someone wants to be putting the trade's case forward. Otherwise, the process can be derailed by wild cards with a personal drum to beat."
Countdown to November 2005
Key dates - July 2004 to 7 February 2005: Consultation with local authorities
- 7 February 2005: First appointed day - applications for transfer of licences can be sent to local authorities
- November 2005 (date to be announced): Second appointed day - signalling move to the permanent new licensing regime
Licensing then and now
When, in 1964, the former Licensing Act was introduced, eating out and drinking in England and Wales were very different experiences.
Lager was hardly sold at all, while now it makes up nearly 70% of sales in the UK beer market. In 1964, most beer sales were mild and bitter, and these have since shrunk to just 32%.
There are now about 60,000 pubs in the UK, and another 60,000 establishments with on-licences. In 1964, there were slightly more pubs, with 70,000 operating.
Best estimates suggest that there were about 17,500 restaurants operating in the UK in 1964, compared with 26,000 now.