Members received a verbal report in relation to the work that Worcestershire Regulatory Services had undertaken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020 from the Senior Practitioner (Licensing), Worcestershire Regulatory Services (WRS).
In the initial stages when lockdown was imposed in March 2020 there were challenges in setting up staff to work from home and in making alternative arrangements for licensed drivers to access the team given that government buildings had been closed and it was no longer possible to hold the usual licensing surgeries.
It was necessary to work quickly to introduce new systems to enable applications to be submitted electronically and for customers to be communicated with.
Other steps taken at this stage included: -
· Communicating with licence holders to signpost them to the government support schemes, such as the Self-Employment income Support Scheme.
· Allowing licensed drivers whose licences expired after March 2020 to defer renewal for up to 6 months without being classed as a “new applicant”
· Regularly publishing advice to licensed drivers on the steps they could take to work safely during the pandemic.
Decision making powers were delegated by the Council to the head of Worcestershire Regulatory Services to enable him to determine taxi and private hire applications which would normally have been referred to the Licensing Sub-Committee. It was noted that whilst those powers remained in place, to date it had not been necessary for any decisions to be taken.
With regard to the mandatory closure of pubs and restaurants, the Licensing officers worked with colleagues from the Environmental Health Team to monitor compliance with the business closure regulations.
Changes were introduced to allow pubs and restaurants more time to pay their annual premises licence fees, and advice was issued on the WRS website to assist those business which might be able to adapt to providing take away or delivery services.
Following the decision by the government to start opening non-essential commercial premises, hospitality venues were permitted to re-open from 4th July 2020. Licensing officers worked with both Environmental Health Officers and the Police to visit licensed premises when they re-opened to ensure they were following guidance and operating safely.
The guidance was regularly updated and officers responded to numerous enquiries from business operators and from the public wishing to clarify what businesses could and could not do.
Whilst overall there were very good levels of compliance by businesses wanting to make their premises safe, some complaints were received from the public and this was another area where the Licensing officers had worked with other colleagues to investigate concerns.
In late July the government introduced measures in the Business and Planning Act 2020 to enable “pavement licences” to be issued. The aim was to provide extra outdoor seating capacity on the highway adjacent to businesses which c
would help with social distancing and boost profitability. The new measures were introduced with very short timescales and officers had to work quickly to process applications.
The same legislation also made changes to allow licensed premises previously restricted to on sales to also offer customers the option of purchasing alcohol to be consumed off the premises.
Members were also updated on the most recent regulations introduced in mid September which imposed a legal duty on businesses to: -
· take the contact details of customers and retain this data to support the NHS Track and Trace Service.
· ensure compliance with the “rule of 6” and that social distancing is maintained between customers.
It was envisaged that there would be further work for the Licensing officers going forward in supporting businesses with changes to regulations and monitoring compliance. Further restrictive measures for licensed premises could be expected to follow nationally, as had already been imposed in areas with “local lockdowns”.
Overall, the team had had to cover a much increased workload in the last six months due to the pandemic and rapidly changing regulations. This had been challenging at times but there had also been good examples of joint working with other colleagues from public health, environmental health and the police,
One unfortunate side effect was that officers had not had time to commence the planned consultation on revising the policy for street collections, but it was hoped that this could now go ahead (see further comments under agenda item 6).
On behalf of the Committee the Chairman thanked the Senior Practitioner (Licensing), Worcestershire Regulatory Services (WRS), for the update and asked that thanks be passed on to the officers at WRS for all their hard work in responding to the pandemic. A number of Members added their comments of thanks, and it was noted that there had been positive feedback regarding support provided by WRS during the pandemic and how helpful staff had been.
In responding to questions from members the Senior Practitioner (Licensing), Worcestershire Regulatory Services (WRS) confirmed that there had been good levels of compliance by businesses with the new operating conditions and safety measures, although the public also had a part to play in following the rules around social distancing.
Where reports of possible breaches were received these were being followed up and monitored. There was a regular exchange of information between WRS and the police. Members of the public wanting to report concerns about licensed premises could contact WRS on the main switchboard number 01905 822799 or email email@example.com .
On the issue of joint working with the police, it was noted that two police officers had been allocated to roles working on licensing issues in North Worcestershire. This extra resource was very much welcomed by officers
RESOLVED that the verbal update be noted.