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Special Needs

Many of you will have heard of “special policy areas”, “stress areas” or “cumulative impact zones” in the context of alcohol licensing – but what effect do they have? A case I was involved in recently demonstrated just how powerful these policies can be.

It was a David vs Goliath scenario. I appeared on behalf of a residents’ group (albeit well- organised and funded) against one of the giants of the fast food sector. The company wanted an increase in hours on a site that had previously been occupied by a traditional restaurant within Camden’s Seven Dials Special Policy Area (SPA). Residents were extremely concerned about the premises trading later and about the increased footfall that the new style of operation would bring.

Camden’s Statement of Licensing Policy says that any new premises licences, or relevant variations to existing licences such as extensions to hours or increases in capacity, should be refused in their SPA. This is, however, a rebuttable presumption that can be departed from in exceptional cases. The question was, could the applicant in this case prove that it deserved to be made the subject of an exception to policy?

It certainly thought so, having paid a large premium for the site and spent three months fitting it out. It turned up mob-handed at the hearing, too, with a barrister, two solicitors and a host of people occupying various roles within the company. Somewhat unusually for a case involving a residents’ association, the applicant’s corner outnumbered that of the objectors.

The applicant came armed with a huge raft of policies – all formulated at HQ and passed on to its franchisees to dictate the way in which their outlets are run. They took issue with the statistics on crime quoted by the police who, interestingly, were supporting the application as a way of getting a condition on to the licence requiring door supervisors.

Company policies covered everything from CCTV to litter-picking. The premises would, the applicant maintained, be well- managed and run.

Camden’s Councillors, however, were not persuaded. They stressed that applications in the SPA will be refused in almost all cases. This one, they felt, fell very short of being exceptional. The fact that the applicant might run the place well, or that it operates similar premises elsewhere without complaint, were not good enough reasons to depart from the policy.

If you are thinking of acquiring premises, or looking to extend your licence, in a stress area, you should be aware that you will have to work hard to show that your case is exceptional. Examples where you might succeed include very small capacity (50 or so) premises which do not trade late, food-led premises with restricted hours and instances where you have surrendered a licence for similar premises in the area with similar activities.

Due diligence on the licensing authority’s policy is therefore crucial before you consider embarking on such a project, if you do not want to risk having a site that you cannot operate as you wish.