Killjoys or simply doing their job? Tell us what you think of the clampdown by council on Ely bookshop told they need a licence for serving wine

Topping and Co, High Street. Ely, Left: Hannah Green, Stuart Havis.

Topping and Co, High Street. Ely, Left: Hannah Green, Stuart Havis. - Credit: Archant

An Ely bookshop’s free glass of wine offer to visitors attending book signing sessions is under threat after East Cambs Council warned they need a special licence every time they pop a cork.

For 13 years Topping and Company have played host to hundreds of authors and like all good hosts have served up wine for guests without any problem.

But all that ended in early June when former politician and Cambridgeshire author Jeffrey Archer made an appearance at an event organised by the High Street bookstore; the event came to the notice of East Cambridgeshire District Council’s licensing team.

Since then the book store has been visited by council officials who warned the store they need a licence to serve wine, even if they are giving it away and not selling it.

Store manager Stuart Havis said: “It was Jeffrey Archer that did it. We suddenly had a licensing office visiting us asking questions including were we aware we needed a licence to do what we have done hundreds of times for over 13 years.

“We made it clear we were handing the wine out free as any good host would do to help make a better atmosphere for our guests and that tickets for events didn’t include the wine but provide money off books being promoted.

“I understand it is all about the interpretation of the licensing laws and we don’t feel it is being interpreted in the right spirit.”

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Topping and Company, which is about to launch its autumn literary festival on September 3 with an opening event with top selling author Andrew Miller, now has to apply for a separate licence for each event.

But each staff member aged over 18 is only allowed to make five applications a year; the store has enough to apply for 40 - less than half the number hosted by the bookstore annually.

Mr Havis said: “We have 70 events in the next three months and we are really struggling to meet the requirements of the licensing authority.

“We bring in thousands of visitors every year, which is great for Ely and other businesses that reap the benefits with people using local restaurants and even staying overnight. It is very short-sighted.”

Stewart Broome, senior licensing Officer at East Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “The Licensing Act 2003 covers the sale and supply of alcohol in many different situations.

“It explains when a licence or temporary notice is required by anyone wishing to sell alcohol to the public. “In this case, it is clear if someone is asked to pay for a product or service such as a ticket to an event and then can claim a glass of alcohol, such as free wine at a literary event, a license is required.

“We understand this situation is frustrating for Topping & Co which is why an officer visited to explain what they needed to do in future.

“We also discussed why we hadn’t taken action previously and offered to help with the problems they have experienced when filling out the online form.”

“We have a statutory duty to enforce the Licensing Act 2003 and ensure the law is applied fairly and consistently to all. This not only ensures people who attend activities across the district are kept safe, but it also helps to ensure that those people who run events are fully covered should something happen.

“If anyone is in any doubt over what permissions are required to hold licensable activities, we would ask them to get in touch and we will do all we can to assist.”