Licensing should not be an afterthought for hotel developers

The Maldron Hotel in Belfast opened in March

CRANES once again dominate the Belfast skyline with much being made of the sharp rise in hotels as well as the number of restaurants, pubs and clubs that have opened up in the city in the last couple of years. The increase in footfall and choice has greatly impacted the licensed industry and has created a vibrant hospitality offering within Belfast, with more venues creating stiffer competition and premises ‘upping their game' to attract both the local and tourist trade.

The latest figures from the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation show the number of hotel rooms due to break the 9000 barrier in the second half of 2018 and 10,000 by 2020. There are currently 50 projects in various stages of planning and development across the North with occupancy figures averaging at 77.8 per cent. This represents an investment by the private sector of over £500m.

While planning, finance, construction and staffing are all important issues for any new hotel, the legal requirements should not be overlooked either. Many operators, particularly those new to the market, do not realise that hotels are subject to a framework under the Tourism Order Northern Ireland 1992 in addition to the alcohol licensing laws, personnel law and company legislations applicable in Northern Ireland.

Many of these regulations are unique to Northern Ireland and differ greatly from similar laws in the rest of the UK. In particular, developers need to be aware of the practicalities of the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the requirement to obtain court consent for a licensed hotel before works commence. This involves a large amount of forward planning as licensing plans depicting what the hotel will look like must be approved by the court at the ‘provisional grant' stage. The hotel must then be constructed as per these plans and if any changes come about during the construction process, a further application must be made to the court to have these changes approved.

Once the hotel is completed in accordance with the finalised plans and all other statutory requirements such as planning permission and building control have been complied with, then the ‘final grant' of the licence is issued. With so much happening during a major project such as a hotel development, it can often be the licensing aspect that is overlooked, creating problems when it comes to getting the completed hotel licensed and ready for guests.

Another quirk in our system for developers to take on board is the fact that local courts only hear licensing applications on certain dates, usually once a month. Therefore it is important that there is coordination in the latter stages of construction to ensure the hotel is completed in time for the relevant court date, as missing it could mean the hotel is open but unable to serve alcohol until the next licensing date which could be some weeks away.

The past two years have been unprecedented in terms of the number of new hotels entering the market and a sure sign that the Northern Ireland economy, particularly in Belfast, is on an upward trajectory. To ensure the construction phase of any new development runs to its timeframes, and as smoothly as possible, it is important that the sector is aware of and compliant with the relevant legislation.

:: Linus Murray ( is a director in O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors

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