On the 14th October, the Department for Communities opened a consultation on liquor licensing laws in Northern Ireland.
The consultation can be found here: It contains guidance on how to complete and submit your response.
If you have an interest in any of the following - now is your chance to have a say:
Getting a taxi after a night out
Local breweries, cideries + distilleries
Reducing antisocial behaviour
Free market competition
In Northern Ireland, due to licensing legislation dating back to 1902, there are ~1600 liquor licenses for public houses. This means the market is closed for competition. In Belfast, a handful of powerful publicans control the vast majority of licenses, which is bad news for consumers.
Without competition, there's no incentive for bar owners / publicans / nightclub owners to innovate. They can essentially run the same nights year after year and people will still have to trudge out to them if they are looking for evening entertainment. Reduced competition also has the effect of driving prices up on the bland, commoditised beers that the vast majority of these establishments are contracted to sell.
For our local breweries, access to market is severely restricted as we can't afford to 'pay to play' like the multinational corporations can. When a license in Belfast costs upwards of £150,000, publicans look to multinationals to provide funding to cover the cost, but this comes with a catch. The bar must sign a contract limiting it to only sell that multinational's products on draught.
You may go into a bar and see the following options on draught:
Hop House 13
Old Mout Cider
You'd be forgiven for thinking you're getting some choice. When you dig a little deeper, you'll realise that most of these products are made in the same automated factory.
By law in the UK each pub must have one free draught line. Unfortunately the multinationals essentially operate as a cartel to get around this legislation.
In 2006, the NIO put out a consultation to abolish the cap on the amount of licenses in Northern Ireland to bring our licensing into line with England + Wales. The pub trade lobbied strongly against it, and it was shot down.
It is our view that our licensing legislation should be brought into line with England + Wales.
Have you ever tried to book a taxi after 1am in Belfast?
Because our licensing laws make it hard for pubs to open after 1, everyone spills onto the street at the same time. This leads to an increase in antisocial behaviour, costing a huge amount of public money to our hospitals and the police. If pubs were able to stagger closing times, it would allow everyone the chance to get home calmly + safely.
We believe any amendments to the current Licensing Order are a sticking plaster approach. While welcome, it wouldn't address all the issues.
When you think of bars and clubs in Northern Ireland, a lot have become drinking dens - especially in the city centre with the rise of 'identikit' pubs. Pubs could become enablers of social cohesion, and many country pubs in NI do act in this way. They can help to bring communities together if they are run responsibly with a focus on community. Opening the market would allow new, community focused establishments to flourish. A lower barrier to entry means the Licensee would be less focused on driving costs down and paying their license debt back and more focused on creating a positive environment for people to come and socialise. People are increasingly drinking at home. In the case of Northern Ireland, we believe a large part of that is because a lot of pubs don't act as a family friendly community gathering places. There's also no variation in products, even Tesco has a wider range of beer on offer than the majority of local pubs!
When you look at the decimation of the high street due to online shopping, most of our towns and cities are full of charity shops and vacant units. It's not much better in England, but the rise of the micropub has allowed forward thinking entrepreneurs to turn these vacant units into community focused, family friendly pubs. Breathing life back into the high street.
How good would it be to be able to go to the cinema and be trusted to enjoy a glass of wine with your movie? Or to be able to go to the shop and pick up some beers without having to specifically go to an off-license?
In 1902, the people of Ireland were not trusted to drink responsibly, so they capped the amount of licenses. We believe real change needs to come in the form of allowing free competition in the market, allowing breweries, distilleries and cideries to open taprooms and trusting the people of Northern Ireland to drink responsibly. If Licensing was brought into line with England + Wales, this would become a reality, making NI a better place to live, work and do business.
Our suggested responses to the questions on the consultation:
Do you think the current 12 categories of licence are adequate? Please explain.
No, at the very least, a special category of license should be established for local breweries, cideries, wineries and distilleries. This category of license should enable the local producer to be able to sell products that they manufacture, at the place of manufacture for consumption both on-site and off-site, at external events and online. The local producers license should have the same conditions as a full premises and off-sales license, with the caveat being they can only sell products that they manufacture on site with the appropriate license from HMRC. This would be hugely successful in creating employment and helping our world class local producers to grow export sales and help to rebalance the economy. Taprooms create community cohesion, offering a family friendly environment which would have the added bonus of normalising society in NI.
Having said this, I believe licensing in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the Licensing Act (2004) in England and Wales. I believe the existing legislation is not fit for purpose and any amendments to the 1996 Order, while welcome, are akin to a sticking plaster approach. Freeing the market would enable our local producers to sell their products in more locations locally, as the current system encourages Licensee's to sign anti-competitive contracts with multinational producers in exchange for financial incentives to help pay for the high cost of a license.
Do you think the current permitted hours for licensed premises are appropriate? Please explain.
No, I believe public house licensees should be allowed to stagger their closing times to reduce the strain on taxi firms at 1am, to reduce anti-social behaviour, which would reduce policing and hospital costs.
We encourage you to complete the rest of the responses as you see fit, or you can leave them blank.
Thank you for taking the time to read our suggested responses and we hope you take 10 minutes to respond to the consultation,