Licensing Support during the Covid-19 Pandemic
The Regulatory Services Manager gave an update on how the Council had supported licence holders during the pandemic and how compliance had been and would be monitored. The following points from the report were highlighted:
· Soon after lockdown the Institute of Licensing published the first version of its Protocol for Licence Applications and Hearing under the Licensing Act 2003 During the Covid-19 Pandemic and the report set out the intentions of this document.
· Despite the challenges of lockdown and the constant stream of change and uncertainty, the Licensing Team had adapted quickly in order to continue to operate the Council’s licensing functions within the existing statutory timescales.
· Staff had had to work from home and had been issued laptops with full access to all relevant systems. Because staff had not been present in the office, all incoming calls had been taken and managed by Customer Services as far as possible, including signposting to relevant parts of the GBC website, with messages being emailed to Licensing officers to respond accordingly.
· Arrangements were made for post to be collected, scanned and then processed remotely.
· Taxi and private hire vehicles were emailed temporary exemptions from displaying current plates/badges and drivers were asked to continue to display their old plates/badges alongside the temporary exemption and asked to keep the letter with them at all times.
It was noted that given the efforts made by the team, Gravesham’s licence holders were highly unlikely to have observed any reduction in licensing service provided by the Council during lockdown.
The team had also pushed ahead with the digital offering with the expert help of the Digital Team. Online forms, developed over the years, had been consolidated into an improved online service which included payment facilities, online application forms for licences, notices and other functions such as the ability to change personal details. This had become an invaluable tool for officers and clients who were able to access these services from home during lockdown. Members noted that the number of applications for licences had not reduced during lockdown and statutory timescales had been met throughout.
Partnership working was also highlighted including the work undertaken by the Council’s Environmental Services Commercial Team after routine food hygiene inspections were halted by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) during lockdown. The Licensing Team had also worked closely with the Police, Trading Standards and other teams in the Council to ensure continuity of service and support for businesses in Gravesham during the pandemic. All businesses in the Borough had been contacted via email by the Team in advance of re-opening which had worked very well.
The Regulatory Services Manager also gave details of the next steps for the team following the easing of lockdown which included:
· Issuing full licences to those currently issued with a temporary licence or missing the accompanying badge or plate.
· Managing the collection of deferred fees.
· Processing any outstanding licence renewal requirements.
· Whilst visits currently continued to be mainly reactive and intelligence led, targeted and joined-up monitoring was and will continue to be undertaken where the need arises.
· The high level of service provision would continue to be provided by the team and in addition, the continuation of investigating new and innovative ways to improve the service.
On behalf of the Committee, the Chair thanked the Regulatory Services Manager and the Licensing Team for all their hard work in a rapidly changing landscape. The Committee echoed the Chair’s sentiments during which the Digital Team and the Committee Section were also thanked for all their efforts in the enhancement of the digital offering and the smooth management of the remote meetings of the Council. In addition, the meetings of the Licensing Panels were mentioned including the professionalism of the Team and advice and impartiality which could sometimes be a difficult line to walk.
The Chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee requested that he be kept abreast of any developments and detail in relation to Licensing.
The Chair advised that he had attended a meeting of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association and the main concern that had been expressed was the wish to see a level playing field and he was asked what to do with regard to premises not abiding by Covid-19 rules. The officer advised that Members and others should contact the Commercial Team at firstname.lastname@example.org as the Team would respond with advice and connect with partners and other agencies with regard to enforcement.
The following points were raised during discussion on this item:
· Following a question of the adverse impact of the Council on the potential reduction in licensing fee income, Members were advised that it was a little premature to know the full extent of any impacts. However, since the beginning of April six premises had surrendered their licences and there were approximately 300 premises and 30 clubs in the Borough so overall this was a low, although very regrettable, percentage loss. It was noted that the statutory fee set by Government was, on average, £180 per annum per premises so the loss to the Council had not been substantial.
· A question was raised on the timescales pre and post Covid-19 with regard to processing temporary event notice and other licences and the Committee was informed that the processing timescales had not changed before, during or following lockdown. The new digital processes meant Temporary Event Notices were responded to instantly and other response and processing timelines continued to be met.
· It was noted that some pubs and (social) clubs continued to allow customers to stand shoulder to shoulder. The officer reiterated that inspections were being undertaken primarily in response to intelligence passed to the Commercial Team (email@example.com) as this was a Health & Safety issue. Food hygiene inspections had resumed during which premises were checked for Covid-19 safety. Members were assured that, whilst it was not possible to monitor premises on a day to day basis, officers were quick to react and to work with partners should issues arise.
· Following a question from the Chair, the officer confirmed that no extra funding had been received from the Government that he was aware of to assist with the additional work for Regulatory Service, within which the Licensing Team sit, arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
· Members were advised that the team had recently returned to office working on a rota basis to enable social distancing to be practised in the limited space available. The Regulatory Services Manager noted there had been ups and downs during and after lockdown with a steep learning curve throughout. However, the team had provided an excellent response to new regulations and legislation. The officer confirmed that all was well with himself and with the team.
· Home working and the potential for possible mental health issues was raised.
Resolved that the report be noted.