Extended licence offers 36 hours to celebrate as Britain gears up for spectacular New Year's Eve

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The Independent Online

Britain is preparing for an extended period of drunken festivities tonight with pubs and clubs being allowed to open for 36 hours of non-stop drinking on New Year's Eve.

Britain is preparing for an extended period of drunken festivities tonight with pubs and clubs being allowed to open for 36 hours of non-stop drinking on New Year's Eve.

This is only the second time that the Government has allowed such a lengthy extension of the licensing laws governing the most popular period of the party calendar. The first time was during the Millennium celebrations two years ago.

Pubs, nightclubs, discos and members' clubs can legally open at 11am today and remain open until 11pm on New Year's Day, an extra 12 hours after normal closing time on New Year's Eve.

Kim Howells, the minister responsible for licensing at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, said that the impact of the experimental 36-hour opening session would be monitored closely with a view to changing the licensing laws permanently if it proved a success. "Longer opening hours will give consumers more freedom to choose how and when to celebrate New Year's Eve, and it will give the industry the chance to give their customers what they want," he said.

Police and the public have been able to seek restriction orders on those pubs that are intending to stay open for the full 36 hours, but there are no official figures on how many have chosen to do so.

Mark Hastings, from the British Beer and Pub Association, said: "This is a significant and welcome step forward for Britain's pubs and the millions of people looking for greater freedom and choice in how to celebrate New Year."

Jonathan Mail, a spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale, said 36-hour opening was a victory for common sense. He added: "Our licensing laws are out of date and we welcome this move by the Government to bring them into the 21st century, albeit for one night only."

Outside London and the other major cities, however, there appeared to be little enthusiasm for the licensing extension among pub landlords faced with having to pay the extra wages. David "GG" McGuigan, of McGuigans Bar in Coventry, said: "It is not commercially viable to keep staff and doormen on all that time. All you get after a certain time is people out of their heads and with nowhere to go."

Police in London are of a similar view and are recommending that people should stay close to home and not venture to Trafalgar Square, where the fountains will be cordoned off and the entire area will be subject to an alcohol ban.

Andy Trotter, head of policing for the City of Westminster, said: "Every year people come to Trafalgar Square and the nearby streets to see in the New Year thinking there will be some sort of entertainment.

"My advice is to stay close to home, where transport is easier to obtain and the crowds are not so dense."

Elsewhere, however, New Year revellers are being welcomed. Already 40,000 tickets have been sold for tonight's bash at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich organised by the Ministry of Sound. The party will start at 7pm and close at 9am tomorrow.

The Ministry, which paid about £200,000 to hire the Dome for the night, has promised to entertain punters with 50 DJs, in addition to the likes of Judge Jules, Fabio, Dreem Team and Grooverider.

In Edinburgh, 100,000 party-goers are expected to come to Princes Street and be entertained by the Scottish bands The Proclaimers and Mull Historical Society, as well as a spectacular fireworks display following the traditional torchlight procession.

Cardiff's City Hall lawn will be transformed into an open-air ice rink and a fireworks display will be accompanied by music from Utter Madness and Nucleus Roots. In Glasgow 30,000 people are expected to attend a free party thrown by the club Colours, with DJs Roger Sanchez, Huggy Burger Queen and Iain "Boney" Clark.

In Birmingham, the singer Shahin Badar will lead the city's Countdown to Midnight celebrations, which will include Beatles tribute band the Pre-fab Four, followed by the Blues Brothers band Sweet Home Chicago.