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Thu 9th Jul 2020 - Legal Briefing

Let’s stick together by Michelle Hazlewood

As lock-down restrictions are eased further across England, Scotland Wales and we look forward to the sector opening up further, it’s a good time to reflect on the journey of the past four months or so.

Along with “unprecedented”, one of the most well-worn phrases has been “we are all in this together” and it will be interesting to see to what extent that continues. Without doubt we have seen the coming together of the hospitality industry as a unified entity, epitomised by the collaborative working, campaigning and one voice of our trade bodies – UKHospitality, BBPA and the BII. 

When we say adversity is the mother of invention, perhaps it should really be ‘reinvention’. This has been proven in so many ways – at a macro level with the government introducing the concept of furlough (something the vast majority of us had never even heard of), the new VAT cut for hospitality and Eat Out To Help Out campaign, along with changes to planning laws and pavement licences; down to a local level with licensees adapting their businesses to offer takeaway or grocery sales, delivering to the vulnerable among their communities, furloughed workers volunteering for charities and now venues implementing social distancing.

We have seen best practice shared and examples of innovation across the industry. For example, we recently submitted a licence application on behalf of Goodwood Estate for a drive-in cinema at the motor circuit featuring an in-car sound link and customer ordering via an app. At a more practical level, councils have changed their ways of working, with hearings and meetings taking place virtually via video calls.

We have continued to work closely with our clients, local authority licensing teams and trade bodies to work out ways to smooth and ease the operation and application of the Licensing Act. In view of the requirement for continued social distancing, we have worked to further develop and deliver online training for the APLH award, along with delegates completing the exam online while maintaining the rigorous requirements of the BII and Ofqual.

As a sector we’ve proved resilient, adaptable and innovative but a number of critical issues remain. Firstly, the need to maintain the level of innovation previously demonstrated – the status quo is not where the industry can be in six months from now. 

We need governments at Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh to keep hospitality front and centre – being able to open in England last weekend and in the coming days elsewhere in the UK was a massive relief but, if the virus remains under control, restrictions need to be loosened further. 

Each government announcement regarding further easing will bring more nuances and operational considerations and each site will need to adjust its position. A continual series of changes is likely to cause different interpretations across the country with different expectations arising from enforcement agencies. Clear guidance from the top is essential so we don’t see hundreds of different local interpretations.

Secondly, there’s the issue of expectation management. The government has looked to innovate through temporary amendments to legislation such as the Business and Planning Bill, with its changes having an impact on outdoor seating and licences. The period from the announcement fanfare to commencement is still about a month. While this is travelling at the speed of light in parliamentary terms, in the real world we need it to be faster. As with most things, the devil will be in the detail and we can only hope local authorities have discussed the format and criteria so there are standard requirements and interpretations across the country.

What’s probable is the willingness to look creatively at the wording of the legislation and how it can be used to support the hospitality industry will differ from council to council. At the height of lock-down restrictions, we saw certain councils help businesses, such as Liverpool in relation to pavement licences and the early announcement by Leeds council on the use of minor variations to bring in off-sales. 

Unfortunately, we also experienced councils where there was no appetite or ability to communicate and no willingness to reflect and try to assist. If the proposed simplifications and freedoms are to have a positive impact, authorities must be willing and able to take not only the letter of the law forward but also the overall objective and spirit behind its introduction. If not, we risk missing the summer trading window.

As a final thought, partnership working remains critical but perhaps the greatest emphasis should be on the notion of collective responsibility, including the Great British public! This ties in with the sentiment of “we’re all in this together”, which will remain true for some time to come.
Michelle Hazlewood is a partner at John Gaunt & Partners
John Gaunt & Partners is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

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