Councillor conduct has been a hot topic in local government in recent years, manifested in the duty for each local authority to promote and maintain high standards of conduct under Part VII of the Localism Act 2011, backed by the requirement to adopt a code covering the conduct of councillors from their time of election as representatives of their constituents. Maintaining high standards in public life ultimately reflects on those who make decisions and the decision-making bodies they represent, and at a time of austerity and cuts to local government budgets, the need to maintain those high standards is greater than ever. The management of alcohol licensing under the Licensing Act 2003 as part of the work of local government is no exception to these requirements, and the proper conduct of licensing hearings is central to that process.
Against that background, Cornerstone Barristers’ Licensing Team have produced an online training package of videos providing councillor training on conducting licensing hearings under the Licensing Act 2003. Click here to view the videos.
Timed to coincide with the local elections, the videos (which are in two parts) are aimed at new as well as experienced councillors.
First, viewers are able to watch presentations from Philip Kolvin QC and Josef Cannon explaining the nuts and bolts of licensing law and guidance on good practice for conducting licensing hearings, complete with powerpoint presentations.
Secondly, a full licensing hearing before a sub-committee can be viewed. This provides an example of how a sub-committee might be conducted, applying much of the good practice, including text prompts on certain issues. Asitha Ranatunga plays the Chair of the sub-committee and the video involves several members and staff from Cornerstone Barristers. Finally, three different decisions are provided as illustrations of how the application might be decided (that is grant, grant with reduced hours, refuse), with reasons for each. All of the training materials are provided alongside the videos.
The total viewing time for the training videos is about three hours. They should be useful for all licensing authorities seeking to train new licensing committee members or officers, or to provide refresher training in this area.
The training has been released at an interesting time for licensing, when the conduct of licensing hearings is under particular scrutiny.
In April 2017, the Report of the cross-party House of Lords Select Committee (providing post-legislative scrutiny of the Licensing Act 2003) made headlines for its recommendation that licensing committees be abolished and their functions transferred to planning committees. The basis for this recommendation involved a number of examples of councillor misconduct at licensing committees which were reported to the Select Committee. These involved concerns about a lack of knowledge of the licensing regime, lack of scrutiny of evidence, and partiality by councillors hearing licensing applications, with the Select Committee concluding that these represented a ‘scandalous misuse of the powers of elected local councillors’. For more information on the report, see Legal update, Local authorities’ licensing functions under the Licensing Act 2003 analysed by House of Lords Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny report.
The Select Committee report is not binding, but there is a requirement for government to respond to the report. It remains to be seen whether, in the light of the general election and more generally, this recommendation is adopted by a new government. In the meantime, and in any event whilst the issue is considered, the requirement for proper and comprehensive training of councillors on licensing is of paramount importance. Used as part of a training package within licensing authorities, it is hoped that these videos should go some way to driving up standards in this area.
There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ licensing hearing or decision, and the licensing videos should not be viewed as such. In fact, the process of putting these videos together brought home to all involved how difficult it can be to conduct and manage fair hearings of this nature. They should be informal, discussion-led hearings, yet a degree of formality is required. They are not courts of law, but the committee should seek to scrutinise the evidence before them. Finally, as in this case, the representations of the parties will often allow for a range of decisions, each of which must be reasoned so that the basis for the decision is sufficiently clear for all concerned.
The need for full and clear reasons for decisions has been emphasised by the courts and is often central to the merits and costs consequences on appeal. The reasons must come from the councillors who hear the application and then are formulated by the legal advisor. There is a balance to be struck between being too short or too long, and the pressure of drafting reasons immediately after a contentious application has been heard is obvious. The decisions which are provided in the training materials seek to provide some structure to how a decision might be reasoned, considering in each case the licensing objectives, relevant guidance and policy, findings of facts, and conditions. Comparing the reasons in each decision should also be instructive.
As with all our training, we welcome constructive feedback via Cornerstone’s training video page. We are always looking to meet and maintain high standards in our training, just as democratically elected councillors should do in conducting these public hearings.