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Mon 15th Jun 2020 - Opinion Special: Daniel Davies’ plea for operators and authorities to work together after lock-down

Them and us by Daniel Davies

Persuading operators and those working in the police, local authorities, and enforcement to think about their relationship in a new way is “difficult”. I’ve been fortunate my life has provided me with experiences that have enabled me to look at problems from different points of view. I founded CPL Training and grew it into the premier training brand for the hospitality sector; I started and ran two security companies; and I’m currently chairman of the Institute of Licensing (IoL). These journeys of discovery have been bracketed by my early experience as a licensee, at just 18 years old, and now as the founder of Rockpoint Leisure, where I am seeking to create a regeneration model that will exemplify how we can make partnership working a reality – rather than something people pay lip service to.

We are on the cusp of coming out of lock-down and reopening licensed premises and hospitality venues of all types. There is considerable apprehension about how enforcement authorities will relate to our businesses in the “new normal” that will be established in the post-covid-19 world. I hear operators expressing the fear covid-19 secure regulations will become another stick to beat them with; that you can forget partnership working – “them and us” will be back with a vengeance. However, new problems can present new opportunities to reset old relationships, but we need to get the thinking right. This means we all need to stop working in silos where relationships are characterised by mutual suspicion and recognise the need for “generative thinking”.

Generative thinking is practical, creative, and constructive. Generative thinking deals with the world and takes action, even if knowledge is incomplete. In practical terms it means operators recognising their social obligations and the need for regulation, and regulators developing a new mindset whereby they ask: “How can I use regulations creatively to enable well-run businesses to start up and flourish?” That’s instead of asking: “How can I use regulations to restrict and control?” Coming out of lock-down provides an opportunity for this kind of generative, creative thinking. Progressive councils are looking at ways of relaxing planning laws to enable pavements to be utilised for outside opening; to make constructive suggestions that help premises reopen; and operators are looking at what they should do to persuade people to come out again and frequent their premises. 

This is an opportunity for councils and police to do the right thing. When I look at my own early experience as a licensee, I recall how so much depended on the personal attitudes of whoever was the council licensing officer or the police licensing sergeant at the time. Some wanted to work with the trade and supported the responsible licensees, others saw their position as an opportunity clean-up dodge. There is too much at stake for us to return to this “them and us” attitude.

Early in my tenure as chairman of the IoL I encountered a civilian licensing officer working for the police. This lady was quite senior and had an audience at levels well beyond her pay grade. When we were introduced her first words were “Are you trade?” When I admitted I did indeed have a licensed trade background it was clear this was tantamount to an admission of original sin and she regarded me as being on the opposing side. This “old-school them and us” attitude should have no place in the modern licensing environment, which is why I have encouraged responsible operators to join the IoL and mix and communicate with regulators. “Pavement pragmatism” needs to characterise the relationship between operators and enforcement because the economic consequences of the covid-19 pandemic, and subsequent prolonged lock-down are profound and will be long-lasting.

Let me give an example of what the wrong kind of thinking can lead to. In licensing we have officers of quite junior rank making decisions that can have profound and unintended long-term consequences. I know of an international casino operator that opened a new venue in a town where it had not previously operated. It fell-foul of an officious licensing sergeant who visited every week looking for anything he could find fault with. Conditions subsequently placed on the licence made it impossible to operate profitably. The operator closed the premises. It is now lumbered with paying a quarter of a million pounds a year in rent for the next 17 years.

The consequences of this interaction between operator and enforcement go well beyond the immediate costs to the operator, or the jobs lost to the local economy, or the business rates lost to the council. The operator is a triple-A rated company that won’t default on its obligations; the premises it rents is owned by a private equity company that has no incentive to release a triple-A rated company from those obligations. So, the reverberations of one piece of over-zealous policing will literally last for decades. Furthermore, the consequences will be found in conversations the local police and the council will not even be aware of. Conversations in board rooms in London; over a drink in a bar in Milan between the chief executive of this company and his opposite number in a similar business who might be considering opening up in that town, and who will be told “don’t touch it with a barge-pole!” This is the modus operandi that needs consigning to the dustbin of history if hospitality is to play the role it can play in regenerating the economy and jobs in the post covid-19 environment.

But operators are not the only ones apprehensive about reopening. Police and council licensing officers are too. They fear a tsunami of complaints about noise nuisance and disorder. But what I see in my local neighbourhood is a breakdown of social order because of the lock-down. Low level vandalism is on the increase; house parties and illegal raves requiring police attendance in the early hours of the morning. Over the Easter weekend one convenience store near where I live sold £120,000 worth of alcohol over four days that people were drinking at house parties. We should not forget where people are denied well run, regulated, and controlled night-time spaces they will create their own social spaces in unregulated environments that will create fresh challenges for the police. This is the context in which we need to view the debate about whether two metres or one-metre social distancing is appropriate.

It is in everyone’s interests we reopen the night-time economy safely and responsibly. Police and council licensing and environmental health departments don’t have the resources to visit every premises. I hope we will see a risk-led approach where enforcement use their local knowledge to target problem premises and we will not see an old-fashioned crackdown. That would spell disaster for business, for the economy and jobs and for communities across the country that want to see a return to normal. There is an opportunity for councils to win hearts and minds. From council chief executives down to officials working at the coalface in licensing and enforcement, we need to see a new culture of “advise and support”. At the moment, many council offices are closed, and staff are working from home. The last thing operators need to see is the council deploying the local Stasi to issue parking tickets. The “new normal” should not mean a return to the worst aspects of the old normal.

Reopening licensed premises will symbolise that return to normality and it is important we get it right.
Daniel Davies was the founder of CPL Training and is currently chairman of the Institute of Licensing and chief executive of Rockpoint Leisure

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