The locals are revolting

26 November, 2010

Nobody protests when a hairdresser opens its doors for the first time. Local papers don’t carry letters from outraged readers when a florist appears on a shopping parade. But a new off-licence is almost guaranteed to meet with some degree of local opposition.

A petition is likely to form part of the protest. “Too near a primary school” is a familiar objection, but in other recent examples it has been claimed that new shops will be perilously close to residential areas, a working men’s club, homeless hostels, and even the seafront at Weston-super-Mare.

It’s understandable many people worry about gangs of youths loitering in the vicinity of a new off-licence: it’s a problem that many drinks retailers are equally concerned about. But the list of worries can sometimes be less convincing.

When Serdar Tas applied for a licence for a new store in Nottingham, residents seemed in favour. “Everyone passing me by asks me when I’ll open the shop,” he told the local paper.

Yet more than 30 locals signed a petition against the plans. “I’m worried that after 8pm gangs of youths will be making noise, littering the streets and playing music, disturbing me and my family,” complained one. This objector happened to run a food shop next door, licensed to sell alcohol.

Christleton, the Best-kept Village in Cheshire, went into spasms of fury when the general store applied for a licence last year. The parish council objected and a petition was circulated.

One objector observed: “With the government considering action against binge and under-age drinking, a licence within 100 metres of a high school is inappropriate.” Another concluded that the store would only attract teenagers “as residents would go to Sainsbury’s or Oddbins, which have a wider selection”.

Press coverage is invariably weighted towards vociferous objectors, rather than licensees who are trying to avoid bad publicity. The online versions of such stories attract plenty of reader comments, especially in the cases of stores which have had problems in the past.

“Clearly the shop owner isn’t a responsible man and he should have his licence revoked,” stormed an anonymous contributor to one response thread. “The large supermarkets are better able to cope with teenagers who try to buy alcohol when under-age as they have better-trained staff and security officers to help out if any trouble occurs.

“Corner shops are, as far as I’m concerned, the main place where under-age drinkers buy their booze so should all have their licences removed.”?Andy Grimsey, a licensing solicitor with Poppleston Allen, says residents tend to “pile in” with a whole range of grievances if retailers face a licensing review or apply for longer trading hours. Complaints about parking and vandalism will be vented, whether or not they are relevant to the application or hearing.

“They will send a letter or sign the petition that’s been brought around by a particularly vociferous resident,” he says. “It’s the job of the licensing officer to filter through those to either eliminate completely irrational objections, or frivolous or vexatious ones, and keep it down to objections by local residents who have some connection with the premises and the application made.” But he adds that licensing hearings are “less court-like and evidence-based than they used to be”, which can make life difficult for operators facing local opposition.

Opening an off-licence in a controversial location – for example near a school or homeless hostel – needs extra thought. “You’re probably going to be in a situation where you’ll end up having a hearing, but as long as the operator has made a risk assessment and is saying the right things they’ll probably get the licence,” says Grimsey.

His advice to any drinks retailer – in addition to avoiding activities that lead to problems in the first place, such as under-age sales and serving drunks – is to communicate effectively.

“It’s easier said than done, but we would always advise operators to be as proactive as they can within the local community,” he says.

“If you’ve got an ongoing dialogue with local residents or residents’ groups, it does allow you to listen to their concerns. It can definitely give you some idea and prior warning of what people are thinking if you intend to apply for an extra hour, or if someone wants to call for a review of your licence.

“It can save off-licences thousands of pounds in fees and lost income if they can just maintain that kind of dialogue. A lot of residents are unreasonable, but a lot aren’t, and the licensing process is their voice.

“If you can gauge that local feeling I can’t stress enough how important it is. The last thing any operator wants to do is be in front of a licensing committee, because that in itself is a risk. Local politicians are rather unpredictable.”

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