The Committee received a report which updated members on the impact of Covid-19 on Licensing Services. The report set out the changes which had been made to the level of service received by businesses and individuals due to the Covid-19 situation, including how services had been delivered and the fee level charged.
Work was underway to reinstate services as lockdown restrictions were eased whilst adhering to safe working guidance issued by government and support was being given to businesses planning to reopen. Many businesses and individuals had been, and continued to be, subject to business closure regulations as a result of the Covid 19 situation. Those that had continued to operate had been suffering significant business impacts and have had to make changes to the way that they operate.
The Government had encouraged councils to take a pragmatic approach to the delivery of licensing services during this period where there was the discretion to do so, whilst also recognising that licensing services were critical to supporting and facilitating key business sectors such as the food and drink industry.
The Local Government Association had produced advice for licensing authorities on managing licensing and related issues during the Covid-19 pandemic and the overarching principles within this advice had been used to underpin decision making to date.
Members were advised that Licensing Services across the Buckinghamshire area had been approached by licensees seeking advice and support about how they should be operating their businesses and raising concerns about the payment and collection of licence fees. In dealing with these queries and requests the Services have had to consider how the licensing regime could continue to be delivered in a supportive, appropriate and consistent manner.
Section 5 of the report set out the financial impact to the Council, including the projected loss of income for Licensing Services during the Covid-19 period and the breakdown of this across all the licensing areas by regime. There had been deferment of some fees and a lower level of applications received during the pandemic. The Committee was advised that as lockdown was to be eased, an upturn in activity and subsequent income was expected as businesses made plans to re-open. Planning was also underway to reinstate affected Licensing Services as soon as possible and to process any backlog accrued.
A member asked a question about license fees which had been paid for temporary event notices and whether, where events had been cancelled, these fees could be refunded or carried through to 2020/21. It was clarified that the statutory framework around licensing activities made it difficult for the Council to act flexibly when it came to temporary event notices and because of this legislation, the Council was not in a position to waive, refund or defer fees particularly for new licenses or new applications. Flexibility was able to be offered for the deferment of annual fees where premises held an existing license.
A question was raised on suspension of taxi licensing fees and members were advised that the Council had not been able to process new driver applications due to the high level of safeguarding checks and inability to carry out face to face verification. This service was now being brought back and it was confirmed that the fee had not been suspended at any point. Where existing drivers had been due to renew their license, the period after expiry where they could choose not to renew had been increased to three months during the pandemic. In response to safeguarding measures it was clarified that ongoing advice and guidance had been provided to the taxi and private hire trade and the Council had been sharing government guidance with operators, along with guidance on face masks and the provision of protective screens.
A member queried whether the in-house MOT testing centre would be available from 6 July 2020. The Committee was advised that the in-house centre only supported vehicles in the Aylesbury area, with those in other areas continuing to go to private approved test centres who had continued to operate during the pandemic. The Aylesbury centre had now re-opened after staff and resilience issues on a phased basis with social distancing measures in place.
The Committee requested that a further update report on the impact of Covid-19 be presented at the next committee meeting in September.
That the report be noted.