Will Planning departments be looking at licensing appeals?
The recent House of Lords report identifies appeals as being an area which is particularly disjointed and in need of reform. The report confirms that since 2006, the number of licensing appeals has declined. This will come as no surprise to many licensing practitioners and operators. Evidence presented to the Select Committee suggested that this decline was due to the good quality decision making of Licensing Sub-Committee’s however; the Select Committee took a slightly more cynical view and recognised that this is likely due to financial constraints and political factors from the point of view of many Councils. The same can also be said for operators. Many find the costs of appealing prohibitive as it can be difficult to quantify at the beginning of the appeal exactly how much work will be involved. The report recognises that compromises are often reached between Council’s and appellants, but in the event that an appeal proceeds all the way to a magistrates Court, operators can find that the litigation risk is just too great and potentially leaves them exposed to tens of thousands of pounds to fund a full appeal as well as the risk of costs being awarded against them if they lose.
Magistrates Courts deal with all manner of matters and it can often be months before an appeal is heard, potentially delaying an operator refused a licence from opening their premises for many months or, in the event that a summary review takes place and an interim step is suspension, an appeal taking 8 months is likely to kill any business before the matter event reaches the Court.
So is the answer, as the Committee have suggested, referring licensing appeals to the planning inspectorate? Some would argue that the planning inspectorate is used to dealing with a similar framework to the licensing regime and, since the District Judges giving evidence to the Select Committee acknowledge that training of magistrates and District Judges is of minimal effectiveness given the infrequency of the licensing appeals they deal with, the training of planning inspectors on licensing matters would be more time and cost effective.
Others may raise concerns that the proposal of bringing the licensing and planning regimes closer together blurs the lines between two distinct regimes. Operators often find Licensing Sub-Committee’s raising issues relating to planning matters, during licensing hearings and there is an element of concerns that it would be too difficult to separate the regimes if the same inspectorate were dealing with both areas. Industry bodies have also confirmed that Planning Committees are not without their own critics and therefore they would like to see comparative research into Planning Committee’s before a decision is made.
Whilst the issue of the time and costs of appeals certainly needs to be addressed, we are almost certainly a long way away from any significant change to the current regime and any further research into the merits of any change is likely to take much longer than your average licensing appeal!