LICENSING chiefs have refused pubs in Dingwall early opening on Sundays for Ross County matches against Celtic and Highland rivals Inverness – as it would disturb churchgoers – but have allowed the club’s own bar to serve booze earlier.
Applications for 11am opening had been received from Ross County Stadium, Dingwall British Legion, The County Tavern and The Mallard, all in the Ross-shire town.
The SPL match against league champions Celtic is being played this coming Sunday, kicking off at mid-day, while County face Caledonian Thistle in the last match of the season on 19 May, with a 12.45pm kick-off.
Highland Licensing Board policy currently allows opening only at noon on Sundays.
The applications were received only last week as the dates for the games were made following the SPL split last month.
As there was no scheduled licensing board meeting taking place in time to consider the applications, convener Maxine Smith had to make a decision under delegated powers – and only granted permission for the stadium’s own ‘hospitality suite’ to serve alcohol at 11am.
She refused permission for the remaining licensed premises – citing the possible disturbance to churchgoers as a reason.
Licensing Standards Officer Ian Cox had previously submitted a report to the board recommending that, due to the huge differences in method and style of the stadium as a venue, compared to the bars in Dingwall, that the club should be considered safe to grant an early extension, but the bars and pubs were unsuitable.
Mr Cox highlighted the fact that the hospitality suite is geared up to provide a full breakfast, served to the tables, with alcohol as an ancillary product, which is on offer, but not the primary reason for customers being there.
The stadium also provides ‘personal licence holders and stewards’ throughout the event. There has so far never been any trouble.
Mr Cox claims: “In comparison, the bars and clubs in Dingwall attract mostly standing clientele and whilst food such as bacon rolls etc. are on offer, these are ancillary to the consumption of alcohol.
“The bars also attract the away football fans who have travelled to Dingwall on coaches, where they may already have become either partially or greatly intoxicated. Fans are turned away at the Ross County ground due to intoxication and any addition to this would not be welcomed or responsible.”
Councillor Smith said: “Mr Cox put forward his report on football matches and early openings at the last Board meeting and it was discussed.
“It will go forward for proper debate when we put any new policies in place in our new Highland Licensing Policy Statement, which is due to go out to consultation soon. At that point we will consider all the evidence provided and will have more information on which to base our decisions.
“For now, any early applications are still outwith policy so they come to me for a delegated decision.
“I did grant an early opening to the British Legion in December and was interested to see how things went and whilst there did not seem to be any extra trouble, these new applications come forward on a Sunday when clubs and bars normally open at noon.
“I have a legal duty as Board Convener to make sure anything I grant outwith policy coincides with the five Licensing Objectives, which are to prevent crime and disorder, secure public safety, prevent public nuisance, protect and improve public health and protect children from harm.
“The police have objected to the early extension of the clubs and bars, but have not objected to the early opening of the hospitality at the stadium. I concur with their reasons.
“To grant would be contrary to several of the Licensing Objectives, in fact I would argue that there could be issues with all five.
“The days of early opening licence applications for the football fixtures are both Sundays and whilst I am not saying that all football fans would be intoxicated, some of them would be, especially the away fans who may have begun drinking before getting onto their coaches.
“These fans would have to pass by churches where there would be services being held and congregations coming and going, as well as families and children walking about the town on their day off.
“I am also concerned about more fans being turned away at the turnstyles and what they would do to fill their time until the match finished and they went back onto the coach.
“It is not my role to take account of the failing economy and help out traders by allowing early openings, my key job is to protect the public and where alcohol is the primary reason for visiting a venue I am afraid I am really not minded to grant an extension at this time.
“I am satisfied the venue in the Ross County ground has proven that alcohol is secondary to the activity they are providing, and as such is no threat to the five Licensing Objectives.”