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Council licensing powers: caution urged

For the first time city and county councils are to be given power to regulate planning of new licensed premises. But why did it come about and what might the implications be? Drinks Industry Ireland takes a trade pulse on the proposals.

Martin Harte, Managing Director of the Temple Bar Company, a voluntary organisation of people with a commercial or cultural interest in the area, should know. He’s watched the proliferation of off-licences there and blames them for degrading the reputation of this Central Dublin destination for tourists and locals alike.

And he has figures to hand on that proliferation.

Back in 2012 he counted 62 within 10 minutes’ walk of Temple Bar to which must be added new ones opening in Dame Street and Redmond’s Hill.

And the next phase will be about how these off-licences can expand their business in liquor sales, he adds, pointing to the change in consumer behaviour in Temple Bar in the last five or six years.

“Alcohol is a lot more freely available than it was 10 years ago,” he said, “Temple Bar can accommodate a lot of people, it’s a place where people come to relax and chill-out and I noticed some years ago that a lot of people had alcohol out in the street particularly around festivals and other events.

“This is the most negative manifestation of that. But there are also kids hanging around taking over public spaces and drinking alcohol in them. We didn’t have this when there were less off-licences around the place.

“The phenomenon of drinking in the street has really become popular over the last six or seven years,” said Martin who puts the rise in anti-social incidents – particularly during the day – down to this proliferation in off-licences over last few years.


New legislation announced

Following such concerns, the Minister for Justice & Equality Frances Fitzgerald and the Minister of State for Planning Paudie Coffey recently announced a proposal to allow city & county councils include objectives in their Development Plans relating to regulating, restricting or controlling the development of licensed premises”.

The making of a Development Plan is a reserved function for elected councillors and the proposal was drafted by the Department of Justice & Equality. It has been included in the Head and General Scheme of the new Planning & Development (Amendment) Bill published by the Department of Environment, Communities and Local Government.

“Pubs, off-licences and nightclubs are a normal feature of any town or city in Ireland,” stated Minister Frances Fitzgerald TD, “However in some towns and cities we’re seeing an unsustainable proliferation of off-licences along single streets or in historic or tourist areas.

“This is leading to concerns about the attractiveness and commercial vitality of these areas as well as prompting fears regarding drinking in public places and public order.

“I think it’s only right that local councils should have a role in regulating the proliferation of new licensed premises through the Development Plan process.”

Minister of State Paudie Coffey added, “I’ve worked closely with my colleague Minister Fitzgerald to deliver this in the heads of the planning and development bill. This proposed change will provide for greater alignment between the planning and licensing systems and will give communities, through their councillors, a say in local policies on provisions of new licensed premises.”

Martin Harte reflects the views of the Minister for Justice.

“This Bill is to be welcomed as the local authorities don’t really have the ability to limit the number of licences in an area.”

The Temple Bar Company has noticed a direct correlation between anti-social behaviour and street drinking which it attributes to the increased availability of cheap alcohol in the city centre.

So he sees the Ministers’ proposals as a welcome first step.

But of equal importance is the “licensing creep” of restaurants into pubs without planning permission, he points out.

This is leading to an over-saturation of licensed premises within the city centre too, he added.



LVA representations

The LVA has been engaged with the Department of Justice for some time on this planning issue to make it a requirement to apply for planning permission before being cleared to seek a licence and has also made representations to government about the lack of control on off-licensing regimes.

In 2005 there were 2,900 off-licences in the country. As of September last year there were 3,280.

It costs €250 to apply for wine off-licence and then €1,500 per category to renew.

The licensing regime has lost control in the opinion of LVA Chief Executive Dónall O’Keeffe, so the Association is naturally concerned about this proliferation.

“We’ve noted Minister Coffey’s announcement and we’re awaiting the detail,” he told Drinks Industry Ireland, “We think directionally it’s positive but are very concerned about the varying interpretations of it that might be taken up by the different councils. We need to see uniformity on this issue.”

The retail demand for pub licences comes only from multiple retailers and other reasonably large retail operators.

“There should also be a requirement to have planning permission before you apply for a pub licence. Currently, one can get the licence first and then come back for planning permission. It’s the same for off-licences.

“You should need to have your Tax Clearance Cert, be of sound character etc and have a premises that’s already got planning permission before a licence is granted.”


NOffLA welcomes but warns

NOffLA kicked up its heels at the announcement with its Government Affairs Director Evelyn Jones stating, “NOffLA welcomes any provision by the Government that encourages the responsible retailing and consumption of alcohol, however it’s important that a differentiation be made between retail outlets specialising in the sale of alcohol and those mixed traders who retail it as part of a broader offering and as a means to drive footfall to sell other dearer grocery products.

“Unfortunately the current licencing system is a result of changes made in 2000 which deregulated the market and resulted in the increase in licences available for retailing alcohol.”

However she also warned, “It’s also important to note that it’s the job of Government to regulate the industry and transferring power to local authorities may lead to local commercial circumstances impacting on the decision to award planning for new licensed premises.

“As responsible retailers, NOffLA is calling on the Government to urgently proceed with and enact The Public Health Alcohol Bill which it has committed to and furthermore we believe that a ban on below-invoice-cost selling of alcohol should also be included as it will strengthen the protections in place to safeguard the public health.

“We believe these measures will serve as a strong deterrent for the irresponsible retail of alcohol which NOffLA greatly welcomes.”


VFI urges caution

And VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben, too, urged caution in the implementation of any such power by city or county councils.

“Current Licencing law is primarily based on a system of control exercised by the Courts,” he pointed out, “This has, by and large, served its purposes well and Legislators should be slow to tamper with it.

“The current proposal relates to Development Plans for the future and is narrow in its definition. We would not like to see it expanded beyond this.”

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