Obtaining a Premises Licence is becoming increasingly challenging for arcade owners; there was a time before the Gambling Act 2005 when an arcade owner only needed to purchase a section 34 Permit at a cost of £250 in order to operate for up to 3 years. With the introduction of the Gambling Act, the regulatory landscape changed completely; significantly affecting arcade owners offering anything other than category D gaming machines. Along with the introduction of the Operating Licence, issued by the Gambling Commission, was the introduction of the Premises Licence. Issued by the local authority it allows the holder to make certain categories of gaming machines available for play in the premises and lasts indefinitely unless it lapses, is surrendered or revoked.
The application form itself is simple enough and when submitted must be accompanied by plan showing the area to be licensed. However, the biggest change was to the application fee which increased significantly and is currently capped at £2000; to add further pain there is an annual fee liability of up to £1000 to maintain the licence. Another significant change was the requirement to advertise the application and to notify responsible authorities of its existence. Those responsible authorities and any other interested parties have 28 days in which to make any representations about the application.
Representations can be made not only by responsible authorities such as the police or safeguarding or even in some cases the licensing team itself but also by members of the public and local businesses if they can show that the operation of the arcade will in some way affect their business. Local community representatives and churches have been known for example to raise concerns about the morality of gambling and its effects on the more vulnerable in society. There have also been reports of objections received from local councillors who, ignorant of the legislation, thought that FOBTs could be sited in AGCs and fired up by the recent media campaign have rallied to prevent a further proliferation on their doorstep. In recent years there have been a spate of representations made by other arcade owners who allege that if the applicant does not conduct its business in accordance with licensing objectives this will have an adverse effect on their business and so they are therefore entitled to make representations. Those have included suggesting that the applicant may not be legally entitled to occupy the premises, that the site plan or notice advertising the application is defective or even that the applicant may not be suitable to operate an arcade despite having been approved and granted an Operating Licence by the Gambling Commission.
In the ordinary course of events if no representations are received, the licensing officer with delegated powers from the local authority has authority to automatically grant the Premises Licence. However, where representations are made, unless they are frivolous and vexatious, the application will be referred to a licensing sub-committee hearing. Until the hearing takes place the arcade cannot open, resulting in lost revenue and often incurring additional costs for legal representation. In addition there is a cost in both time and money to the local authority in preparing for and conducting the hearing as a number of councillors will sit accompanied by council employees including the licensing officer presenting the case, a legal officer to advise at least one other to make a record of the matters discussed. Ultimately it’s the tax payer who bears the cost because whilst licensing fees are ring-fenced for licensing matters, the cost of conducting a hearing far exceeds the income through fees.
What can become evident at those hearings is that the representations that have been made are without foundation or substance and often not relevant to the application. Committee members have expressed frustration at attempts to delay or derail applications but say that local authorities must err on the side of caution in order to reduce the risk of a large legal bill of a judicial review brought by an interested party who is not given the opportunity to be heard.
One solution is for applicants to supply additional information with a Premises Licence application including copies of policies and procedures and a local risk assessment, although this was not originally legislated for. Operators are obliged through a LCCP social responsibility provision to carry out a local risk assessment for each site and there is an ordinary code provision that operators should share the assessment when applying for a new Premises Licence or to vary an existing Premises Licence. The assessment if prepared with proper thought and consideration is likely to address many objections that might be received by an interested party regarding the protection of children and vulnerable persons and the prevention of the activities being a source of crime and disorder. However, compliance with an ordinary code provision is not obligatory and many local authorities have not made it a requirement of their application process that a local risk assessment should be included in the application paperwork. Furthermore where applicants include a local area risk assessment with their application, some operators are using a generic template such as that in the Bacta toolkit without completing it and which is ineffective in supporting the application.
Operators should therefore pay particular attention to including a well prepared local area risk assessment as a part of any application for a new Premises Licence; it may mean the difference between being up and running in a month of submitting the application or waiting several months for a hearing with no guaranteed outcome.
If you require any assistance with your application or require representation at a licensing sub-committee hearing then call Debbie Hough Bollard on 07854149504