News Smart Residents Hold Power

Residents ate influencing the licensing landscape

In this article I return to a favourite topic of mine and that is “residents”.  The involvement of local residents and increasingly Residents' Associations, has changed the licensing landscape probably more than anything else and certainly in the last 5 years.

When licensing took its first tentative steps towards Local Authority control concerned local people when confronted with bloated applications requesting just about everything on the menu until at least 2 in the morning would rant and rave before Local Councillors, sometimes to their detriment.

The modern breed is a much slicker, cleverer, more organised political animal.  These residents (particularly in cities and in the wealthier parts of Greater London) scan the Local Authority websites, have contact with their Local Councillors, know the ins and outs of the local policy, what has been granted and what not and sometimes pay to instruct lawyers to represent their views.  They are a formidable opponent and indeed the apotheosis of the concept of localism.

I can think of three recent examples which illustrate this:

Firstly, in a smart area of West London a client of mine who is a small pub operator decided to invest in a coffee shop which is becoming an increasingly trendy thing to do.  It is a classic independent coffee bar with good quality coffee, homemade cakes etc. popular with local people and their pushchairs during the day.  My client decided that he wished to sell alcohol just in case a patron wished to exchange hot beans for cold hops and so we submitted an application until 11:00pm thinking, 'a 30-seater café: what can be controversial?' It was surprising that the local Residents Association submitted a four page detailed representation dealing with concerns in relation to off-sales, the use of the outside area, noise disturbance and quoting extensively from the Local Authority Policy!

My client met the Chairman of the Association but their numerous concerns were not satisfied until the day of the hearing when a final condition was agreed requiring the doors to close at 10:00pm!  My client eventually achieved what he wanted, but it was a difficult and protracted process.

Secondly, I had a client in a very wealthy part of Central London who became the victim of local residents in a classic pincer movement – a number of them commenced emailing the manager of the pub then gradually escalated and copied in Local Councillors, the Licensing and Environmental Health Officers.  If you adopt the mind-set that your local pub should be nice and inviting yet also completely quiet then it is going to be very difficult to satisfy you as, believe it or not, pubs can get very full of people and be noisy!  All seemed to have calmed down but recently the emails have started again to such an extent that the Residents' Association wishes to co-author a management plan dealing with issues –the residents want to manage the pub but with none of the responsibility.  'Yes, we love living next to your pub but this is how we think you should run it' seems to be the refrain.

The third example was the wish of a small chain of pubs to develop a pub which they have recently bought.  They are prepared to spend a considerable sum of money investing in a very tired and rundown premises but wish to use part of the outside area, a space apparently not used.  It is surrounded by residents who have indicated that they love the idea of a nice pub to come in, drink, eat and meet their friends etc. and are sure that this will have a beneficial impact on the area generally and even on their property prices (!) but no thank you to the outside space.  The pub operator has indicated that he needs outside space to be competitive and certainly to attract people including families during the day and early evening, but why would those residents who have enjoyed an empty green space welcome part of its use by customers eating and drinking and the consequent noise?  The answer is there is no incentive or reason for them to do so and they have made their position clear. Yes, we would like you to change the pub and make it nicer but please on our own terms, and customers must remain inside or go out the front if they want to smoke.

Where will this go? Inevitably it will end up at a hearing before the Licensing Committee whose members of course, are elected by local residents and who may well be addressed by Local Councillors who are familiar to them and will put the residents’ case most persuasively. The operator?  The operator, unfortunately, is likely to be seen as being unreasonable in not agreeing to all of the residents’ wishes and so a somewhat protracted hearing and an unpredictable outcome awaits.

We are now in a situation where it is not just residents’ concerns that count but that residents in some areas are so influential that they are affecting whether local businesses (that is, alcohol businesses) can invest and operate.  To a certain extent this is what the Licensing Act envisaged and is reasonable but not when there is a refusal to recognise that a balance needs to be drawn between the pubs running their businesses and that residents can hear noise as long as they are not “disturbed”.