The licensing process is a stressful one at the best of times, but in the current environment of intense public debate aimed at influencing the gambling review, it has become all the more exacting. Debbie Bollard of Hough & Bollard navigates Coinslot through the choppy waters of licensing in the post- Covid era and raises the alarm on the obscure and barely noticed clause s153 of the Gambling Act where the devil really is in the detail. Your entitlement to a business on the high street may well be at risk if some councils get their way.
Coinslot: These are crazy times on the licensing side of the business at the moment with long delays at the Commission and some councils turning down planning applications without the legal grounds. Are you seeing similar trends of concern?
Debbie Bollard: After I complained to the Commission last week that I had not heard anything nearly 14 weeks into an application, I have started to notice more activity in the last week. Those submitted in August appear to have gone through an initial assessment and request for outstanding documents.
Unfortunately, not all the Annex As applications are being linked up to the relevant Operating Licence applications.
Many licensing authorities are also consulting on their Statement of Principles (Gambling Policy) which has to be reviewed every three years and some appear to be looking at ways to get around s153 of the Gambling Act – that they should aim to permit the use of premises for gambling provided it is in accordance and consistent with the licensing objectives, LCCPs, guidance issued to the local authorities and the Statement of Principles.
One way they can do this is of course by refusing a planning application for change of use. The other way is to demand applicants produce more and more information in local area risk assessments and details about how they will mitigate the risks.
This can for example include providing research data on the prevalence of gambling among those on benefits, something which is not easy to source on a location basis.
As the recent planning application hearing at Waltham Forest demonstrated, where a Local Authority is determined not to have an arcade it will stretch and even overreach its statutory powers to prevent it opening.
Coinslot: With the bureaucratic wheels beginning to turn again, are the various authorities getting back into gear quickly enough to clear the back-log?
Debbie Bollard: Some of the Licensing Authorities are coping really well and getting back to normal service levels, and have adopted innovated practices which have actually speeded up the submission of applications.
However, others are maintaining a reduced service with long delays in responding to emails and applications. This could often be avoided by having information on their websites about application fees and the details of the Responsible Authorities to be notified of a Premises Licence application, but some webpages do not appear to have been updated in many years.
Local Authorities are legally bound to start the 28 day consultation period for new applications upon receipt of an application, but there have been cases where a licensing authority has left it as long as 2 weeks after the consultation has ended to advise whether the Premises Licence has been granted or needs to go to a committee hearing.
Coinslot: Has Covid weaved its way into the licensing requirements or are we relatively safe from Covid related conditions entering the regulatory procedures?
Debbie Bollard: There are specific mandatory conditions that are attached to all Premises Licences of a particular type, and then default conditions that can only be attached to a Premises Licence by consent or following a Licensing Committee hearing.
I have not heard of any default conditions that have been attached that are specifically related to Covid19.
But there have been conflicts between a default condition requiring the entrance locked from 3-5pm to prevent children entering on leaving school and the Government advice to keep doors and windows open for ventilation to reduce the transmission of Covid19.
Coinslot: The gambling review is reaching a crucial time now and all the focus is on problem gambling. However, there is another dimension to the review – as someone who is immersed in the licensing side, what should the government be looking to change to make the processes more applicant friendly and less unnecessarily obstructive?
Debbie Bollard: I really don’t think the Government wants to make the application process any easier, in fact all the signs are it wants to make it even harder to apply for a Licence.
There are discussions about a change to the wording of s153 so that licensing authorities should not permit the use of premises for gambling unless it is in accordance and consistent with the licensing objectives, LCCPs, guidance issued to the local authorities and the Statement of Principles; this will give them more power to refuse an application where, for example, they believe there is an increased problem with gambling in a specific area.
I believe the Gambling Commission should operate a separate application track for non-remote applications, especially where applicants are entitled to small scale exemption.
The Commission have admitted that Remote Licence applications are becoming increasingly complicated and taking up a great deal of the Licensing Team’s resources and which clearly has a knock on effect on arcade application if each application is processed in the order it was submitted and which s what I understand is currently being done.
Coinslot: You represent a wide range of amusements businesses, how optimistic are they for the coming year?
Debbie Bollard: Those I have spoken to appear to have had a good summer and are optimistically cautious that this will continue with so many taking holidaying in the UK.
Provided Plan B or even Plan C is not put into action, then hopefully this will continue over the winter and into spring next year.
That should give the industry the confidence it needs to start investing again which will give the suppliers a much needed boost.
Coinslot: Have you got any new plans or projects on board at Hough and Bollard?
Debbie Bollard: I’ve nothing especially new planned for the Company, I’m really pleased what has been achieved in the first 6 years of trading and will continue to work hard to make sure Clients get their applications processed by the Commission and licensing authorities as quickly and painlessly as possible.