On 24 November 2005 England and Wales completed the biggest shake-up in alcohol licensing for 40 years. As we approach the first anniversary of the new regime, Chris Druce investigates how much operators have benefited
Changes to licensing laws, which swept away standard opening and closing hours and gave residents a greater say in the process, have failed to bring about the doomsday 24-hour drinking scenarios peddled by the more hysterical elements of the national media.
But questions remain over how these necessary and long-overdue revisions have changed the night-time economy for operators.
Few pubs have seen a significant increase in profit since last November, but the majority have highlighted other benefits, in particular a more relaxed drinking atmosphere.
This was one of the Government's stated aims, with staggered closing times more akin to those of our Continental peers designed to cut potential flashpoints by reducing queuing around transport and fast-food sites.
Whether this has been achieved to any great degree remains uncertain, but available information suggests the situation on our streets hasn't been exacerbated, despite the fears of opposition politicians and the rabid howls of the Daily Mail.
Statistics published last week by the Metropolitan Police showed that a string of crimes associated with drunkenness - including criminal damage, common assault and actual bodily harm - had fallen by 13% across London in the first nine months of the act.
Officials in Birmingham have also reported that crime in its Broad Street area, which is packed with pubs, bars and nightclubs, fell by almost 60% between July 2005 and March 2006. And last month Norfolk's police chief said there had been a 9% reduction in violent crime across the county in the past six months as well as a fall in incidents of criminal damage.
There is, of course, no firm evidence to suggest these trends can be attributed to the act, but John Huston, chief executive of high-street pub chain JD Wetherspoon, says extended hours have changed the drinking habits of punters for the better.
"We've certainly not had any more crime-related] issues because of later opening. It's not been the carnage some feared," he says. "At weekends, when we're open until 1am, we're not selling more, as people are instead pacing themselves and are in less of a rush."
Adrian Fawcett, chief operating officer at the UK's largest pub company, Punch Taverns, agrees and believes as time passes opening times will become ever more staggered.
"Most councils set blanket extensions in their areas, as it was the practical thing to do facing the workloads they did last year," he says. "So, moving forward, I expect to see greater variety in closing times by default as councils approach premises on their individual business merits and set opening hours accordingly."
Operators are broadly positive about the results of the changes, then, but they remain angry about the expense and stress they suffered in the run-up to implementation, described as "a fiasco" by British Hospitality Association chief executive Bob Cotton.
A Parliamentary select committee report published in March slammed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's handling of the introduction of the new laws and accused it of failing the industry.
The MPs said the late publication of regulations and guidance was unacceptable, called them "confusing and contradictory" and highlighted a lack of support from central government as councils wrestled with the complex new system.
Brian Hardie, licensing executive at law firm Howes Percival, says last year's rush to get licensing applications through was "a living nightmare". "I honestly thought we weren't going to make it," he says.
The changes have also hit operators in the pocket. JD Wetherspoon has put the cost of preparing for the new regime at £1m, and Punch at £3m. Regent Inns blamed the licensing muddle and increased competition for a fall in its
full-year profits in September, as did Ultimate Leisure.
The costs could yet spiral further. There are fears that the imminent Elton Panel review of licensing will call for higher fees, making Punch's Fawcett and his peers sceptical of the Government's original claims that the new regime would introduce a "light touch", saving £1.97b over 10 years in red tape and associated costs.
But there are hopes that the Elton review will bring welcome news. Hardie would like to see more common sense in the application process, eliminating unnecessary duplication.
Hutson agrees that the initial handling of the changes was poor but, looking to the future, he believes the glass is most definitely half-full.
"We didn't need to go through what we did," he says. "But having come out the other side, I believe we now have better-run town centres and less aggravation in them as a consequence."
- Seven in 10 pubs (42,000) in England and Wales applied to vary their licences last year, although as well as longer opening this also covers food service times, public entertainment and the removal of redundant conditions.
- There were about 300 24-hour licences granted to pubs, bars and nightclubs. Holding a 24-hour licence is not the same as operating around the clock; many are held for operational flexibility.
Source: Department for Culture, Media and Sport
By Chris Druce
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