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Agenda item

Licensing General Update

To consider the updates in respect of: responses to the public consultation on the revised Hackney Carriage (Taxi) and Private Hire Policy; the Taxi Licensing Task Group; the changes to the Houses in Multiple Occupation regime; implementation of the Animal Welfare Regulations; the Licensing Audit Action Plan; and the Hackney Carriage Tariff. 

Minutes:

7.1             Attention was drawn to the report of the Head of Community Services, circulated at Pages No. 16-32, which provided a general update on licensing.  Members were asked to note the responses made in relation to the public consultation on the revised Hackney Carriage (Taxi) and Private Hire Policy; to note that a countywide Taxi Licensing Task Group had been established to consider opportunities to align standards and policies; to note progress in relation to the implementation of the revised definition of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) and the new Animal Welfare Regulations; and to approve that no change be made to the Hackney Carriage Tariff.

7.2             The Senior Licensing Officer advised that a revised Hackney Carriage (Taxi) and Private Hire Policy had been approved for public consultation at the Licensing Committee meeting on 21 March 2019 following review by a Licensing Working Group.  The consultation had taken place between 3 June and 26 August 2019 and the Council had received responses from one local resident, five operators/drivers and one other licensing authority, Cheltenham Borough Council; a summary of the responses was attached at Appendix 1 to the report.  One operator had requested a further meeting to discuss the proposals which was currently being arranged.  Following that meeting, consideration would be given to the responses received and the policy amended as necessary with a view to bringing a revised version to the Licensing Committee in February 2020 for approval.

7.3             A Member queried what issues had been raised in the responses to date.  The Senior Licensing Officer firstly explained that there were currently no national standards for the licensing of taxi and private hire drivers and each Council adopted its own policies; however, the government planned to introduce new statutory guidance following consultation earlier in the year, therefore, most licensing authorities were reluctant to rubber stamp any new policies until that had been introduced as they would be legally obliged to have regard to such guidance.  In terms of the response from Cheltenham Borough Council, Members were advised that age of vehicles was a contentious issue – Cheltenham Borough Council currently required new taxi and private hire vehicles to be under five years and, once licenced, the upper limit was 14 years.  Tewkesbury Borough Council’s policy did not currently set an age limit but this issue had been considered by the Hackney Carriage (Taxi) and Private Hire Policy Review Working Group and the revised policy introduced an age limit of 10 years.  Cheltenham Borough Council had raised an objection to the proposal because of the amount of private hire vehicles licensed by Tewkesbury Borough Council but working within Cheltenham Borough; this was a bone of contention as Cheltenham Borough Council was trying to promote cleaner air quality.  The Member indicated that Tewkesbury Borough Council had recently passed a motion declaring a climate change emergency so he felt this was something which needed to be reflected upon.  The Senior Licensing Officer explained that a lot of the comments from the licensed trade had also been in relation to the age limit - one operator which carried out school contracts on behalf of Gloucestershire County Council had indicated that the age limit proposed would force them to replace the majority of their vehicle fleet, the implication being that they would go out of business, and another operator who dealt solely in executive vehicles had stated that it would put them out of business.  Notwithstanding this, he agreed that vehicle emissions was a very important issue and the majority of other Councils were bringing in policies to reflect that.  A Member indicated that she had sat on the Working Group and confirmed that the age limit of vehicles had been considered extensively; representatives from the licensed trade had attended one of the meetings with the biggest concerns being raised by a company who provided a school service for the County Council and the operator of an executive car company.  In terms of the school contractor, their vehicles had to be equipped with lifting platforms etc. and they received no funding for such adaptations.  As a lot of their vehicles were older, it would be incredibly expensive to replace the fleet and adapt new vehicles.  The Working Group had felt that a 10 year age limit for newly licensed vehicles was appropriate as vehicles of that age were more environmentally friendly than older vehicles, furthermore, if a vehicle failed an emissions test it would not be licensed.  A Member queried whether exemptions could be made for the type of vehicles mentioned and the Senior Licensing Officer confirmed that this could be done as a matter of policy, i.e. the policy could state that vehicles of that type would be exempt, or, as with all licensing stipulations, each case was considered on its own merits so it was possible to licence a vehicle outside of policy.  The Member went on to ask which method would be preferable and if there were any unforeseen consequences of including an exemption of that nature.  The Senior Licensing Officer explained that he would personally prefer the exemption to be written into the policy as it would otherwise mean that a lot of decisions would either be delegated to Officers -  which although not a problem in itself, could mean that Officers would be making decisions which conflicted with the Council’s policy – or there could be a lot of applications requiring a Committee determination.

7.4             A Member questioned whether it would be necessary to carry out further consultation if Members decided to adopt a different standard and the Senior Licensing Officer advised that consultation had already taken place in respect of an age limit for vehicles and if the Committee wished to alter the age limit proposed - for instance, from 10 years to five years in line with Cheltenham Borough Council - this decision could be made without the need for further consultation.  Another Member questioned whether the policy would need to be re-considered and amended further in light of the Council’s declaration of a climate change emergency and asked what approach was being taken to reviewing other Council policies in that regard.  The Chair reminded Members that this would be considered by the Flood Risk Management Group which had been tasked with producing an action plan for making Tewkesbury Borough Council offices carbon neutral by 2030; that Group was due to meet the following week to commence that work.  In response to a query, the Senior Licensing Officer confirmed that approximately 450 private hire vehicles were currently licensed by Tewkesbury Borough Council and only one hackney carriage vehicle.  A Member questioned how many of those had disabled access and the Senior Licensing Officer advised that he did not have that figure to hand but there was at least one operator which specialised in wheelchair assisted vehicles.

7.5             The Senior Licensing Officer went on to explain that a countywide Taxi Licensing Task Group had been established as a result of an action arising from the Gloucestershire Economic Growth Joint Committee and aimed to find ways for licensing authorities across the county to work together to make improvements.  The initial meeting had been for Members only and a further meeting had taken place on 7 October which had been attended by the Senior Licensing Officer along with the Chair of the Licensing Committee.  It had been a very interesting meeting which had highlighted how closely the district licensing authorities already worked together, for instance, through the Gloucestershire Licensing Officer Group which shared best practice etc.  Some of the issues discussed included Cheltenham Borough and Gloucester City Councils signing up to the national register of refusals and revocations which had been introduced by the Local Government Association in 2018 in order to keep a record of drivers whose licenses had been refused or revoked – prior to that licensing authorities had to rely on a signed declaration from new applicants as there had been no way to check – and the other licensing authorities in the county had committed to doing the same; the possibility of introducing county-level training for Members which would be discussed further at the next meeting; and a lengthy debate regarding electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed, both in the local area and beyond e.g. sufficient charging points across the country for taxi and private hire vehicles doing airport runs etc. – it was noted that, at a recent meeting of Gloucester City Council, a motion had been put forward to propose that all of Gloucester’s hackney carriage and private hire vehicles should be carbon neutral by 2030.  In addition, the Task Group wanted to speak to vulnerable users to understand what could be done to help the licensed trade.  The point had been made that each district was very different and, whilst there was no shortage of trade in big urban areas such as Cheltenham and Gloucester, it was already quite difficult for the public to get a taxi in Tewkesbury Borough and the more restrictions and requirements that were introduced, the worse that would be.  The Senior Licensing Officer confirmed that himself and the Chair would be attending the next meeting of the Task Group.

7.6             Members were advised that, as set out at Page No. 18, Paragraph 3.1 of the report, following the change to the definition of a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) in October 2018, the Council had initially received enquiries from an additional nine landlords; of those, six had either withdrawn or did not qualify as a HMO and the remaining three would be licensed subject to this status being signed-off by the tenants which was expected to be completed within the next few weeks.  Once the HMOs were licensed, they would be added to a register on the Council’s website.  The Chair drew attention to Paragraph 3.3. of the report which set out that an unlicensed HMO had been identified following a complaint regarding the condition of a property and, as the landlord had failed to take up the opportunity to licence the property, a prosecution file had been presented to court.  She was pleased to report that, following further discussions, the landlord had emailed the Licensing team that morning to confirm they would be applying to register as a HMO.

7.7             A Member indicated that he had recently read a report about the links between HMOs / Air B&B’s and human trafficking and prostitution and he questioned whether this was something which been encountered in Tewkesbury Borough.  The Senior Licensing Officer advised that it was not something he was aware of.  A Member raised concern that there must be more than three additional properties within the borough which met the new definition of HMOs and he questioned whether literature could be sent out to owners of these buildings advising them of the change.  The Chair indicated that it was very difficult to establish which properties were HMOs as landlords were generally unwilling to come forward themselves so Officers were somewhat reliant on reports from the public.  A brief debate ensued as to how to raise public awareness and it was agreed that the best approach was to include an article in the Tewkesbury Borough News.  In response to a query, confirmation was provided that the Licensing team was able to link with other departments, such as Council Tax and Benefits, to try to identify potential HMOs.  A Member sought clarification as to how long a licence was valid for and was advised that, once issued, a licence lasted for five years.

7.8             The Senior Licensing Officer went on to advise that new animal welfare regulations had been introduced at the end of 2018 and this had become a large area of work for the Licensing and Environmental Health teams.  Page No. 18, Paragraph 4.1 of the report set out that a total of 61 applications had been received relating to animal activities and, of those, 47 had been approved and issued, 10 were in progress and four had been refused or a refusal had been recommended.  The new regulations covered licensing of riding establishments, pet shops, dog breeders and catteries and all premises had to be inspected very extensively by a qualified officer – as the Council currently only had two qualified Officers, he was pleased with the progress made to date.  He explained that of the four applications that had been refused, or a refusal was recommended, three were ongoing as Officers had inspected them and recommended refusal but the issue related to the change in standards, for example, record keeping requirements, and the animals were not in danger.  In those instances, Officers talked to the business about how they could achieve the required standard, they could then be re-inspected and, if appropriate, issued with a licence at the lowest level i.e. a one star rating for a one year period.  He stressed that only one application had been categorically refused and, in that case, Officers had offered to work with the applicant but that offer had been declined and the applicant had chosen to appeal the decision through a tribunal which had since been withdrawn.

7.9             A Member queried whether the star rating system would be similar to that used for food hygiene and the Senior Licensing Officer confirmed that was the case and, ultimately, that information would be available on the Council’s website.  He reiterated that any premises which did not receive a five star rating would be advised what they needed to do to improve and they could pay to be re-inspected at any time.  He stressed it was very much about working with businesses and all authorities in Gloucestershire were approaching it in much the same way i.e. trying to raise standards rather than close premises.  In response to a query, the Senior Licensing Officer explained that it might be possible to introduce a bye-law for dog walkers, who were exempt from the new animal welfare licensing regime, but there would be resource implications of doing so.  Tewkesbury Borough Council could look to introduce a registration scheme, as had been done at Stroud District Council, whereby anyone that chose to sign-up had to follow certain rules in order to appear on the authority’s website as an approved dog walker.  A Member sought clarification as to whether the new regulations applied to businesses and premises only and was advised that it covered anyone acting as a business, for example, an individual who bred dogs to show competitively and decided to sell some of the surplus puppies for a certain amount of money would be caught in the regime and would need to be licensed.

7.10           Members were advised that there were two actions outstanding on the Licensing Audit Action Plan.  The first related to the changes to the animal welfare regulations and the introduction of a charging scheme.  Whilst the Council should not be making a profit, it should be cost-neutral which was not currently the case.  The service was in the process of being reviewed to establish its cost in order to ensure the fees were appropriate and this would be introduced in January 2020.  The second action related to a programme of inspections for licensed premises.  It was noted that there was currently no risk rating for licensed premises with inspections being carried out only in response to complaints.  It was intended to introduce a simple rating system, e.g. a village shop selling alcohol would be low risk so would need to be inspected infrequently, or when a problem occurred, whereas a public house might need to be inspected more often.  This project had been delayed due to resources but the Senior Licensing Officer intended to put the inspection programme in place by April 2020, as opposed to April 2019 as incorrectly stated in Appendix 2 to the report, and an update would be provided at the next meeting.

7.11          The final item for discussion was the Hackney Carriage tariff.  Members were advised that Section 65 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 allowed a district council to fix and vary maximum tariffs for hackney carriages in the area.  The current tariff had last been approved by the Licensing Committee in 2018 and was attached at Appendix 3 to the report.  As there was only one licensed hackney carriage within Tewkesbury Borough, the driver had been consulted and had confirmed they were happy with the current tariff.  There had been no other representations from the trade or members of the public, therefore it was recommended that the tariff remain unchanged for the forthcoming year.  It was subsequently

RESOLVED          1. That the responses made in relation to the public consultation on the revised Hackney Carriage (Taxi) and Private Hire Policy be NOTED.

2. That establishment of the countywide Taxi Licensing Task Group be NOTED.

3. That progress made in relation to the implementation of the revised definition of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) and the new Animal Welfare Regulations be NOTED.

4. That renewal of the current Hackney Carriage tariff be APPROVED until 31 October 2020.

Supporting documents: