Introduction to the Licensing Advice Project
The Westminster Licensing Advice Project: innovative partnership working in the public sector.
What is it and why was it set up?
The Licensing Advice Project is a partnership between Westminster City Council and Westminster Citizens Advice. When the Licensing Act 2003 came into force, Westminster City Council wished to ensure that its residents and others affected by the operation of licensed premises (‘interested parties’) were aware of and could exercise their rights and responsibilities under the new regime, and in 2005 approached Westminster Citizens Advice with a view to establishing an independent advice service to provide advice to the community exclusively on licensing matters. The Licensing Advice Project (LAP) was established, and is now into its fifth year.
How it works
The Licensing Advice Project provides a free, independent, impartial and confidential information, advice and representation service, in accordance with the aims and principles of Citizens Advice which are:
•To provide the advice people need for the problems they face.
•To improve the policies and practices that affect people’s lives.
It is staffed by a specialist licensing solicitor, Richard Brown. The service is open to residents of the City of Westminster (including residents’ associations and amenity societies), and covers a range of issues including problems with the current operation of a premises or objections to applications under Licensing Act 2003. The remit also includes publicising the rights and responsibilities of residents in relation to licensing matters, particularly in respect of Licensing Act 2003. It is the only service of its kind in the country and has caused considerable interest among other stakeholders for the innovative service it provides to local residents, who have an important role to play in the licensing regime but who too often do not have the resources or the wherewithal to make their concerns known effectively.
The Licensing Act 2003 has given local people the opportunity to have a bigger say in licensing decisions and has helped to develop and maintain a more balanced equilibrium between the needs and aims of the licensed trade, local people, businesses, public bodies and others. The Project aims to facilitate and promote this partnership approach. The legislative scheme envisages just such an approach. As The Secretary of State wrote in the foreword to the revised Guidance issued under s182 Licensing Act 2003, ‘local people are starting to show a much greater understanding of their rights to make objections and seek reviews and are becoming aware of and engaged in the licensing process.’ The purpose of the LAP is to assist local people in having their voices heard in just such a way and ensure that they are, as the Government envisaged, fully engaged with the licensing regime where otherwise they may not have the knowledge, time, wherewithal or resources so to be. In this way, local residents can play an important role in shaping the communities in which they live.
The major challenge for the Project was to stimulate and maintain awareness. This was not such a problem in 2005 and early 2006 as licensing issues were high in the political and media agenda due to publicity surrounding ’24 hour drinking’, and the sheer number of applications for variation received by Westminster. When these applications had been dealt with, the challenge was to sustain the level of awareness in the community of the Project. The most important factor is engaging with residents and devising ways in which the Project can be accessed by as many residents as possible. The Project is not something for which Citizens Advice is known; and the client base, while broad, tends to be markedly different from core Citizens Advice services. The Project is also unique in Citizens Advice services in that it provides advice to groups as well as individuals. It is clear from monitoring that a large majority of Project clients have never used Citizens Advice before.
The Project has a dedicated website (www.licensingadvice.org) offering in-depth, clear advice on licensing matters and residents’ role as potential interested parties. It is designed such that it is perfectly possible for residents to obtain the information they need from the website without ever contacting the LAP direct. It does not of course provide premises-specific advice and so the client can contact the adviser for specific or technical advice using the contact details on the website, if needed.
It also has the advantage of effectively providing a 24/7 service. A client who works during the day can access this information in the evening at his or her leisure, without the need to take time out from their working day. It is also easier for disabled residents to use. In addition to advice on making effective representations, there is information on reviews and the procedure at Council hearings. There are links on the site to a range of useful information and resources. The website is easy to navigate and is set up to enable disabled users to use the site. There is also a ‘Jargon buster’, to help residents to understand the licensing procedure and terminology better.
Licensing issues are unlikely to disappear from the political agenda in the immediate future. The Conservatives reportedly wish to overhaul the licensing regime, and David Cameron has said in a recent speech that the Government wish to give communities the power to intervene far more in their local community. The Project is a working example of how this can be done. The Home Office are also very interested in the work of the Project and Richard recently produced for the Home Office’s Alcohol Strategy Unit a Guide to the Licensing Act 2003 aimed at residents.
The immediate aim of the Project is to secure funding for a further period. We are also actively seeking to expand the Project to include other London boroughs in a partnership arrangement. Feedback from residents of boroughs who have heard about the Project is good.
The raison d’etre of the Citizens Advice service is to provide the advice people need for the problems they face and to improve the policies and practices which affect people’s lives. The Licensing Act 2003 is a piece of legislation which can have a profound social effect due to the rights and responsibilities which it provides to local communities. Licensing issues are well and truly on the political agenda at both central and local government, and in the media. Providing residents of City of Westminster with access to expert advice and assistance is a vital and innovative step in ensuring that residents utilise their rights and responsibilities and that the views of all stakeholders are fully taken into account so that the legislative scheme can function as smoothly as possible.
© Richard Brown 2010