Pubs spurn 24-hour drinking for 1am weekend licences

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The Independent Online

The Government argues that flexible closing times will bring an end to the current "last orders" drinking frenzy, but the disclosure will fuel fears that alcohol-fuelled rowdiness will continue into the small hours in towns and cities.

Ahead of tomorrow's deadline for all licensed premises to renew their licences, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said about 90 per cent of its members had applied to serve until midnight or 1am at weekends. Most have decided against the round-the-clock opening allowed by the Licensing Act.

Mark Hastings, the BBPA's spokesman, said: "With most licensees opting for a modest increase in opening hours, we are not witnessing a free-for-all.

"Instead, there will be more choice for consumers, with many pubs opting for limited extra time on Friday and Saturday evenings. This is very much in line with what we had predicted, bringing more choice to both the industry and its customers."

The organisation's estimate could mean 47,000 of the 52,500 pubs in England and Wales staying open later. The Act switches responsibility for giving permission to serve alcohol from magistrates to local councils. The new licences come into force on 24 November, consigning to history the tradition of last orders at 11pm.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, the vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "Just because pubs might have applied for a licence to stay open until 1am, does not mean that in practice they will. It should not be assumed that just because an application is made it will be granted."

Although most pubs are thought to have submitted their paperwork in time, there have been warnings that many other businesses affected by the change, including restaurants, hotels, guest houses and shops will miss the deadline.

The Government has conceded that 30 per cent of licensed premises, about 60,000, will not apply in time. By missing the deadline they run a greater risk of losing their licences just before Christmas as they will be treated as new applicants.

The Federation of Small Businesses has labelled the new system a "shambles", warning that fewer than 20 per cent of licence-holders in some areas have submitted an application.

The British Hospitality Association, which represents more than 40,000 establishments, said that the low level of applications was "of concern. Most sensible restaurants and hotels will have applied but there will be a lot of clubs and village halls which will not. There may also be some problems with the ethnic restaurants where the language barrier could cause trouble."

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesman said it was encouraging that the BBPA expected virtually of all its members to meet the deadline. "We will now need to focus on encouraging other sectors who are not so far down the line to apply."