The August 6 deadline for retailers to apply for new licences to sell alcohol is just a week away, says Claire Hu

There is just a week to go before the start of the biggest reform of alcohol licensing laws since the First World War, when the current rules were created to stop munitions workers getting drunk on the job. Retailers in England and Wales have until August 6 to submit applications to retain their existing rights to sell booze under the Licensing Act 2003, which goes live on November 24 and offers greater flexibility on trading hours as part of the government’s drive to create a more Continental-style drinking culture.
The implications of not applying are serious - businesses will have to make an entirely new licensing application and risk losing the right to sell alcohol altogether.
Yet exclusive research carried out for The Grocer among independent off-licences reveals that more than a quarter (27%) of those questioned at the beginning of July still had not applied to their local authorities, which take over control from magistrates for licensing.
Although this is a massive improvement from reports at the end of May showing only 5% of premises had sent off forms, there are concerns that confusion over the complicated application process, as well as a lack of support from some local authorities and a huge increase in costs, means a crisis is looming.
And it is the smaller independents that appear to be getting left behind, suggest retailers’ trade bodies. Shane Brennan from the Association of Convenience Stores says he is still taking calls every day from retailers who are in the dark about the new licensing system. “I think a lot of retailers haven’t got their applications in yet,” he says.
“If people miss August 6, realistically they are looking at losing their licences. They will have to make new applications, which have to be approved by seven authorities such as the fire services and child welfare groups - and they are in no way prepared for the volumes they will be receiving. With such tight timetables involved, and no contingency plan, I can’t see new applications being processed in time for November 24.”
The increased cost of obtaining an alcohol licence means a perceived benefit of the new system - the end of fixed hours and potential to sell alcohol around the clock - is having little impact on the independent trade. For most of these retailers, it’s simply not worth their while to extend their hours and they are applying just for ‘grandfather rights’ - to retain their existing hours.
The Grocer survey reveals that just 5% plan to take advantage of the Licensing Act by selling alcohol later than their current permitted hour of 11pm, and in those cases just until 11.30pm.
Faced with a massive hike in the cost of holding the new licence, which includes a one-off payment, variation fee, annual charge and personal licence fee of up to £1,142, as well as legal fees, it’s a similar story for specialist off-licences.
Neither Majestic Wine, Thresher, Oddbins, Bargain Booze nor Unwins plan to extend hours.
Majestic Wine is paying around £70,000 to switch to the new system. Chief executive Tim How reckons the on-trade is the only winner. “Having to do things such as draw up floor plans is quite ludicrous in my book. It’s a large additional cost and goes completely against the original principal of less bureaucracy. The introduction of designated premises supervisors takes away the only advantage the new Act may have had for the off-trade, which was making it easier to move staff around.”
The independents are likely to be squeezed even further by the multiples as a result of the Licensing Act as they cannot afford to match their trading hours on alcohol.
The end of current permitted hours (8am-11pm Monday to Saturday and 10am to 10.30pm on Sundays) has led most multiples to apply to sell alcohol to fit their current opening hours, which means consumers will be able to buy booze from 7am at some stores and around-the-clock at 24-hour premises.
Tesco, for example, has around 100 stores with 24-hour trading and is asking councils for permission to extend licences to fit opening hours. Asda is taking the same approach, while Sainsbury has asked for 24-hour licences for all its 700-plus stores.
Despite serious doubts about whether the new licensing regime will benefit the off-trade, the government continues to insist it means a more flexible system for retailers.
Speaking to The Grocer, licensing minister James Purnell admits the change will be more immediately beneficial to pubs, but he hopes over the long term retailers will come to see the benefits.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel, as people won’t have to pay the one-off fees again unless they want to change their terms,” he says.
“It does look as though it will cost around £500 a store, but in the end it will be worth it - it will save taxpayers money because the regulatory burden will be less. At the moment the taxpayer subsidises the sale of alcohol and you have to ask whether that is right, or whether it should reflect the wider cost to society such as crime and litter.
“Retailers won’t have to go back year after year to get a new licence. They can also get a much broader range of permissions and more flexibility in terms of putting on special events in-store and serving hot food, which is something I know supermarkets sometimes want to do.”
The Act also includes greater powers to deal with problem retailers - that persistently sell alcohol to under-age customers - through fixed penalty notices and 48-hour closures, whereas before the only weapon was to revoke licences.
“No one wants gangs of youths coming in trying to buy alcohol. The vast majority of the off-trade is responsible but there are some isolated examples who have been persistently selling to people who are under-age,” says Purnell.
However, the real test will be whether councils follow government guidelines when deciding on applications. There are fears that local authorities could take an inconsistent approach, resulting in stores around the country having different licensing hours. Meanwhile, the uncertainty for retailers continues. 5%of independents have applied to sell alcohol beyond current permitted hours of 11pm
2%want to begin selling alcohol before the current permitted time of 8am
27%of independents have still not sent off their application forms
50%of them will pay at least 100% more than they are now for their licences
source: telephone poll of independents conducted for The Grocer

We asked 10 leading multiples and off-licence chains if they planned to extend their licences past current permitted hours, which are 8am-11pm Monday to Saturday and 10am-10.30pm on Sundays. Most multiples are impacted by Sunday trading restrictions of six hours.

The biggest multiple is applying to extend its alcohol licences to match current opening hours, which vary throughout the country.
If it is successful, around 100 round-the-clock stores will be able to sell alcohol 24 hours a day, apart from those with Sunday trading restrictions. For most stores, however, there are no plans to open longer than 8am-11pm in order to sell alcohol.
“We fully support the aims of the Licensing Act in giving customers the freedom to buy alcohol as part of their weekly shop, which many do through the night,” says a spokeswoman.

Asda has applied to extend licensing hours to match store opening times. This
will have the biggest impact on 120 stores which are open 24 hours and those that open at 7.30am. It will not affect Sunday trading, when all outlets are open from 10am-4pm or 11am-5pm.
Asda is confident of meeting the deadline. “The application fees and ongoing changes will increase our costs of licensing compliance, but if this is necessary to ensure an orderly market place operating in a responsible manner, we welcome the new regime,” says a spokesman.

Sainsbury has applied for 24-hour licences for all its 700-plus stores, apart from those with planning restrictions.
The rationale is to reduce bureaucracy, so that when stores want to open for an extra hour or two, for example around Christmas, they will not have to re-apply.
“We only have around eight 24-hour stores and this certainly does not mean that we are going to be changing opening hours,” says a spokeswoman.
Sainsbury is confident all its stores will have applied by the August 6 deadline. The total cost has been around £600 per store.

Waitrose has applied to extend hours to 8am-11pm. This is slightly longer than the opening hours for most stores of 8.30pm-8pm Monday to Thursday and 8.30am-9pm on Fridays.
The multiple says that the policy was aimed at achieving consistency between branches and to enable it to sell alcohol to employees at seasonal parties within store dining rooms. It does not plan to change opening hours.
“All is in hand for our current licences to be converted to premises licences by August.
“We embrace the aim of the new Act,” says a spokesman.

The multiple is applying to retain its grandfather rights, and has not applied for any 24-hour licences or extensions.
By the beginning of July, only half the stores (around 650) had applied for existing premises licences to be converted. However, the multiple is confident of meeting the deadline.
Somerfield licensing solicitor Daryl Mansbridge says: “The only hiccups have been where authorities have returned applications asking for additional forms to be completed.” He adds: “We estimate that ongoing annual fees for licensing will increase substantially.”

The supermarket chain has applied only to keep its existing rights, and has not asked for any extensions.
Licensed trades director John Spurs says: “The company is satisfied with its current working practices and will continue to take its responsibility with regard to selling alcohol very seriously.”
Spurs says it is too early to tell whether the advantages of the new regime will outweigh the disadvantages.

Thresher Group
None of the off-licence group’s 1,878 stores are extending their current hours, which are 11am-10pm Monday to Saturday and noon to 10pm on Sundays.
Thresher says it has cost around £600 a store to renew licences. “At this stage we don’t expect to extend hours, but that will be reviewed on a local basis. Our biggest complaint has been the hassle of all the paperwork,” says its head of central operations, Philip Loring.

Oddbins will not be applying for any extra trading hours. It says the cost has been “considerable”, both in terms of paying the fees and in the time taken.
“As we are staying within the permitted hours, things will not change a great deal for us. However, we hope the new regulations will provide some advantages. Certainly it should be easier for our staff to move branches without attending court,” says a spokeswoman.

Bargain Booze
The chain has not applied for any extra hours at present, but plans to do so later.
Anticipating a confusing transition, it will wait until the new system has had time to bed in. “After assessing commercial factors on a store-by-store basis, we will apply for variations,” says a spokesman. This may include 24-hour licences, but the most common will be to sell alcohol from 6am for stores which open early to sell newspapers.

Unwins has not applied for extra hours on top of its current opening hours, which are 8am-11pm Monday to Saturday and 10am to 10.30pm on Sundays.
The business decided it did not want to risk losing its grandfather rights, which can be threatened if a store applies to extend hours. All its 381 stores are expected to meet the August 6 deadline. It said there had been a huge six-figure increase in the cost.

>>How one independent off-licence owner feels about the new laws

Jasbir Johal is the owner of independent off-licence Hollingbury Wines in Brighton
We are just keeping our existing hours, which are from 2pm to 10pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
It makes no difference if we stay open longer if people aren’t spending the money, and I don’t think we would get any extra sales by having longer trading hours.
If I hadn’t had any help from my cousin, who runs a convenience store, I would have found the licensing forms very daunting.
What I have heard from other people who run grocery shops and off-licences is that it is a complete nightmare. They are asking for too much information that isn’t relevant, and there is sheet after sheet of paper and not much help on how to fill it in.
In Brighton, the council was not very helpful and you just had to keep leaving messages on an answering machine.
Councils need to help retailers, because most of them don’t know where to start.
I’m sure these papers are starting to collect dust in some stores, and I don’t think everyone is going to get them in on time.
I’m looking at paying around £167 to go over to the new system, whereas before it cost me £30 every three years.
For some people it will cost a great deal more because the fee is based on the rateable value and you might have a really small store that has a high rate.
Some shops are paying four times as much as I am, yet they are smaller in size than me. But we are not benefiting as much as pubs, because no-one wants to work longer, unsociable hours when it’s not really worth their while.
The government is talking about making off-licences pay into a fund to deal with drunken disorder, but the off-trade is not benefiting from the new licensing laws. It’s just another tax - and eventually they will bleed everyone dry.
We have a really strict policy on ID, but want more support from the government and police.