To consider a report detailing the cost and implications of the Councils current process of writing to all residents within a 150 metre radius.
D King introduced the report. He noted that the Licensing Committee had requested a report detailing the cost and implications of the Councils current process of writing to all residents within a 150 metre radius to notify them of applications for the grant or variation of a premises licence or club premises certificate.
The Licensing Act 2003 places a legal obligation on applicants for the grant or variation of a premises licence or club premises certificate to advertise the application in a prescribed manner and it was a legal requirement that the responsible authorities were consulted directly. There was no legal obligation to consult with others not set out in the legislation. However, the Council also directly consults with residents within a 150-metre radius, Ward Councillors, Town/Parish Councils, Residents Associations (Loughton only) and details are included in the Council Bulletin.
The fee payable for the grant or variation of a premises licence or club premise certificate was determined by the non-domestic rateable value of the premises and the Act did not allow for Local Authorities to levy addition fees to recoup additional costs incurred.
Cost analysis showed:
• Application fees generated = £6,760 (28 applications)
• Printing and postage cost associated with writing to residents = £12,397
• Additional cost to the Council (excluding income) = £5,637
• Cost associated with 86% of applications (24) exceeded the application fee
It was noted that the true cost to the Council would be much higher than £5,637 quoted, as this figure did not include officer time processing applications or the cost to the Council in holding Licensing Committee hearings etc.
Councillor Caroline Pond commented that she was on the task and finish panel that had recommended this, and she still held the same view. People did not read the local newspapers or notices any more. The cost was not that much and if we withdrew it, how would we explain that.
Councillor Lion said that the costs were not really the important thing, we needed to consult the residents. There was also a perceived confusion between Planning and Licensing regulations. He asked what sort of response we got back compared to what we sent out. S Devine advised that for the Club 195 application we had to send out over 300 letters and received only one reply. In the Loughton area we generally get about 95% objections to all consultations, so they almost all go to a sub-committee, which adds to officer time and costs. Planning did not have a 150 metre consultation range; members will also be aware that the Council as a whole needs to make significant savings over the next three years. In addition, sending out hundreds of letters goes against our climate agenda and aim to reduce as much paper usage as possible. D King noted that the number of letters sent out ranged from 60 to 350; and statistics show that of the 35 applications received, 28 were considered by a sub-committee.
Councillor Williamson was inclined to keep the public consultation but was concerned about the possibility of having a legal challenge. It was balance of risks.
Councillor Jon Whitehouse remarked that the report implied that it would be easier to run if not for members of the public. We do get additional conditions added at a sub-committee. This was a win for the applicant and for the residents. We have a good process in place so did not get legal appeals. Money was a consideration and he was happy to look at other areas where savings could be found to enable us to continue doing this. He was happy to look in detail on the radius and on how we sent out letters, maybe using methods as using post codes etc. with a good mapping software linked to a good database and using basic mail merge, it should not be an onerous job to do. S Devine said that this could take a lot of time even with the new mail merge system. She suggested that we could explore the possibility of using mailchimp, where residents can individually be notified electronically and directed to the website, evert time an application was submitted. This would get away from using paper. Councillor Whitehouse accepted that there was a time issue involved and he was happy to look at ways of improving the consultation but didn’t think we should just remove the consultation process.
Councillor Keska agreed with Councillor Whitehouse. As for responses, often residents would ask their ward councillors to speak on their behalf, but not respond directly. There were also the elderly residents without a computer, what would happen to them. Also, the notices were too small to read and maybe they should be on A3, so it could be more easily read. As for costs, we do get a lot of our income from business rates to pay for our services. It could be argued that 150 metre was too much and it could come down to 100m. The report also suggests that we offload some of this responsibility to Town and Parish Councils who were less able to deal with this. D King noted that all the notices were prescribed by law by size and font size. As for business rates, yes, the Council gets that, but the Licensing Service does not, so must be self-financing going forward. As for Town and Parish Councils the suggestion was in order to suggest more creative ways to engage with residents, rather than create extra responsibilities.
Councillor Keska appreciated the legal side of size and font as a minimum, but the law also says we do not need to consult within 150m, but we decided to do something better, a better standard. D King agreed that A3 would be better, but the legal onus was with the applicant to put up a notice on A4 in size 10 font.
Councillor Sartin asked about the self-financing point, were we losing money at present? She was told that this did cost more than the fees collected, so the money had to come from elsewhere. The money could not be taken from Taxi licensing, that was a different budget. As a service as a whole, if you take Covid out of it, we did recover our costs. But this part of the service did lose money.
Councillor Sartin noted that one of the problems was that once you put something in place it was very difficult to remove it. She had concerns about the budget for next year and asked if we could compromise, like planning, by just notifying the immediate neighbours or making a judgement call on where the venue sits rather than the blanket 150m radius. There was something mentioned that residents could sign up (online) to get notifications but we tend to make assumptions that all residents had access to the internet, which just was not the case.
S Devine noted that we did not have a statutory obligation to do anything; we have not been challenged yet but may be in the future. The 150m radius was an arbitrary figure, she did not know how that figure was arrived at, why not a 100 or 50? Where would you draw that line and what did you mean by immediate neighbours. You were always going to run that risk of upsetting the neighbour next door, who wasn’t consulted by virtue of being outside the defined radius. Councillor Sartin replied that we ran that risk anyway on the 150m, so whatever we did we would be running a risk. Have you asked the Planning Department what their criteria was? The officers did not know what their criteria was and could ask. But Planning and Licensing were very different; Licensing had a wider impact on the community, not just restricted to immediate properties. As for the word vicinity, under the Licensing Act there had been a review, which specifically sought to remove the word vicinity from the guidance, as they thought that people should not be excluded from making a representation irrespective from where they lived. The point made in the report was by putting in a 150m line we deemed this to be the cut off point and those outside this we were less likely give it as much weight.
Councillor Neville agreed that if you had started something it was difficult to remove it. The idea of contacting people via a website was greener but a letter was more direct. We did make good decisions sometimes changing the conditions. He noted that the Town and Parish councils had less resources than we did, and they also had timing issues as to when their newsletters went out.
Councillor Mead noted that by having consultations on the internet we would be excluding a lot of people. There was also the fact a lot of people did not know what Licensing was and would not know to look at our website. This seems to work well as it is, and she would not change it.
Councillor Lion remarked that in trying to balance the books, if instead of sending letters could we send postcards. He asked what the costs in would be by reducing the radius down to 100m or 50m. We needed more information to say what savings we could make. We do need to consult, that was important, but how many we needed to consult was dependent on the costs and if there was any alternative means in reducing the costs.
Councillor Jon Whitehouse suggested that we could also send things by 2nd class post and/or use smaller envelopes.
Councillor Pond proposed that we kept the 150m radius and investigated other ways we could do this. Councillor Sartin added that we should also consult with the Planning department to see what they did.
D King said they would take this away and investigate some of the points raised today and bring it back to the Committee at a later date.
To continue with the 150metre consultations and to investigate alternative ways and their financial implications and bring this back to a future meeting.