Many Ulster pubs are being forced to take a risk by building beer gardens and smoking shelters without planning permission because of planning delays in the run-up to the smoking ban, an industry voice claimed today.
The Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade (FRLT) said that "delays of up to 18 months in some parts" meant many businesses were carrying on with work to comply with today's new smoke-free legislation and applying retrospectively.
FRLT chief executive Nicola Carruthers said some pubs had to take this action or face closing down because of the new laws.
"This is a major risk for many publicans, but they have to provide facilities for customers who smoke or they may as well close their doors forever," she said.
The industry chief urged pub landlords not to let the smoking ban drive them out of business by providing the facilities needed by their customers to smoke outside. The new law has particular consequences for the hospitality trade amid fears that custom will drop in pubs, clubs and restaurants as smokers stay away.
Ms Carruthers said that despite the negative impact many expect the ban to have on their business, landlords should "try to use it as an opportunity to grow their business".
"Experience from the Republic and Scotland shows that businesses who plan early, create a good outside area and have a food offering, will not suffer as much from the smoking ban and may even do well as a result," she said. "However, those landlocked businesses which have not got outside space for smokers are going to have it tough.
"This situation has been made worse by the Government only announcing six weeks ago their final regulations outlining exactly how the regulations would affect local businesses despite making their initial announcement about the ban nearly 18 months ago."
She said this had "made it extremely difficult for publicans across Northern Ireland, although they will ensure that this ban is well enforced" .
"With the planning system experiencing massive delays, of up to 18 months in some parts, many businesses are building beer gardens and smoking shelters without planning permission and applying retrospectively," she added.