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Public sector waste

Little people, big burden

Yesterday I attended a licence hearing in the faded grandeur of Hammersmith Town Hall. I had applied for a variation of a premises license under the so called 24 hour drinking laws (otherwise known as the 2003 Licensing Act) and a neighbour had objected triggering a hearing in front of the Licensing Sub-committee.

In the Council Chamber there was the clerk of the Licensing Sub-committee, a representative of the environmental health department, the Police licensing officer, a legal adviser plus an observer, a licensing officer from the council, two councillors, our vexatious complainant and her husband plus myself. Eleven of us gathered at the appointed hour of 4pm on 3rd October. Three of us had had to take the afternoon off work. Six were future index-linked pensioners and two were on allowances increasing in line with civil service pay levels.

The chairman solemnly pointed out that this was a quasi-judicial process and that the matter would be decided on the evidence produced. The site notice emerged as the first and ultimately only issue. My vexatious complainant being quite short was complaining that the notice had been placed high up on a door and that it had been hard to read. It emerged from this conversation that the notice had not been printed on light blue paper.

“Light blue paper?” you say. “Yes, we all keep a stock of light blue paper for statutory notices”. No we don’t. I applied to West London Magistrate’s Court last year for a Justices’ On-Licence and posted a notice on white paper. I applied to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for a marriage licence this year and posted a notice on white paper.

Apparently in drafting the regulations that sit behind the 2003 Licensing Act the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have managed to specify that these notices have to be blue or rather light blue. When Hammersmith wrote earlier in the year to ask me to re-apply for the licence I had already got from the Magistrates they specified black ink, they specified 16 point or larger type, they specified A4 or larger paper, they specified that the notice must be displayed for 28 days. They did not specify light blue paper.

The chairman was not sure of the law although the licensing officer was adamant that the notice had to be blue. The legal advisor was not sure. The twenty-something legal advisor with an Australian accent was sent to check the regulations. After a delay of ten minutes or so she came back with a thick book and confirmed that regulations did indeed state that the notice had to be light blue.

The chairman considered the matter for 3 milliseconds before he somewhat shamefacedly told us that the hearing could not proceed. He did not have the power to ask the room if anyone objected to proceeding in the face of this deficiency. The notice had achieved its purpose of bringing forward a representation as they call fact free, meandering letters from NIMBYs. The only reason we were in the room was because the VC had seen the wretched notice. Without the non-light blue notice she would not have made a representation, there would have been no hearing and the application would have gone through on the nod. The Chairman’s embarrassment was such that he did ask the licensing officers to consider waiving their fee if we re-applied. We all trooped out after half an hour having achieved nothing.

Up until yesterday, as a fan of the new localism, I had been of the opinion that most people had missed the point with the 2003 Licensing Act. Here was one small example of our overweening central state actually giving some power to local authorities. Giving the power to make licensing decisions to local councillors. As a candidate for next May’s local elections I thought here is a new useful thing that councillors can do for their local areas. How wrong.

This experience is a fable for how the modern British state works:

  • central government starts off with a good idea – make the licensing regime self funding and put the decisions in the hands of councillors rather than magistrates
  • Whitehall civil servants, DCMS in this case, then produce overcomplex regulations and make arbitrary and silly decisions like making everyone re-apply for their licences at the same time so that the new council licensing departments are as overworked and stressed as they are inexperienced and untried
  • local authorities hire lots of mediocre people who are incapable of translating the regulations into some instructions that businesspeople can follow
  • Councillors feel that they have so little power or confidence that they cannot ignore pettifogging regulations.

I am sure that I will be told that all of this is my fault. I should have hired a licensing solicitor to guide me through this minefield. He would have charged me a couple of grand and advised me that light blue paper was a key issue.