The Belfast Report: Licensing across the Water

THOUGHTS ON PROPOSED LICENSING REFORM IN NORTHERN IRELAND

I was privileged to attend the Belfast Licensing Committee this week having been asked to present to the councillors on the ways and wonders of Scottish licensing. Licensing in Northern Ireland could be on the verge of fundamental reform and those leading the way are looking at Scotland, England & Wales and Ireland for ideas.

Alcohol licensing in Northern Ireland sits with the courts: the local magistrates. There are on sales and off sales licences, and differentiation between what I would call public house and restaurant style premises. Interestingly, there is a cap on all new pub licences. There has not been a pub licence issues by the courts in decades, I was told, with one exception where a premises had made an error with its licence renewal.

There is no cap on restaurant licences, but these are heavily restricted: no bar counter, full table service, alcohol must be ancillary to a meal; and so on.

New pub premises cannot apply to the court for a new licence but must instead buy one from an existing operator, for a price. The licence is then transferred to the new operator but importantly the law allows the licence to be physically transferred, meaning a licence can be bought and lifted from one pub, and applied to a new build or new premises. This may be done across Northern Ireland so it is open for an operator to, for example, buy a licence in Lisburn and apply it to a premises in Belfast City centre. This creates a nationwide ‘overprovision zone’ for pubs, and a monopoly for the pub operators.

There appears to be little momentum to have alcohol licensing transferred from the courts to the local authority, as is the case across the rest of the UK; at least for now.

Entertainments and other civic licensing is a different matter. This area of licensing is firmly in the grip of the local authority and they deal with licences for entertainment, street traders and so on.

Many pub premises have an entertainment licence on top of the alcohol licence; this appears to allow later closing times. Entertainment Licences are renewed annually.

Sitting in on the Belfast licensing committee to watch them conduct their usual affairs after I had done my wee bit was an education: the process was so similar, yet different, to seeing a Scottish licensing board or committee in action. The major case of the day concerned a late opening premises whose licence renewal was objected to by a handful of residents over noise complaints.

The councillors very often referred to each other by first names which created an atmosphere of informality and ease. The licence holder sat outside the chamber even after his case had started, and was only brought in after some discussion: that part was perhaps the oddest tradition from my perspective. But now there are plans for the committee to go fully public more akin to what I am used to with Scottish hearings.

Other plans include looking at creating a premises and personal licensing regime for entertainments akin to the 2005 and 2003 Acts. The creation of licensing objectives may also feature, and certainly the Police Service of Northern Ireland are pressing for a sort of ‘prevention of crime and disorder’ objective. Other proposals included creating an online public register of licence holders and pending applications, and reforming the requirement to have annual licence renewals advertised in two local newspapers, a product of historical issues. A number of other ideas are brought in from the remainder of the UK such as provision for temporary licences or deregulation of infrequent entertainments by giving pubs, for example, the right to host three entertainment events a year at short notice without a licence.

I was struck by just how much of the city centre and surrounding infrastructure can be described as ‘new’ with significant tourist developments such as the titanic exhibit coupled with business developments and new residential buildings. At the same time, Northern Ireland is about to go through profound local government reorganisation with the number of authorities dropping to just 11. Belfast will be extended to take in two neighbouring areas, for example. With this background of development and change, perhaps it is appropriate then, that the city should also update its laws surrounding licensing to ensure they are fit for the future.

I was deeply thankful for the hospitality I was shown by councillors, licensing officers and city solicitors during the trip and was left thinking that there was something very personal and personable about the council’s approach to the way in which they do business. My thanks for the opportunity to engage and learn; and most importantly, for the opportunity to stock up on Tayto crisps.

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About Stephen McGowan

Leading Scottish licensing solicitor at TLT. Chairman of BII Scotland.
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