Licence cap is too blunt a measure

Jack Cummins

A ROUND a hundred years ago, the temperance movement reached its zenith. In the past year or so, history appears to have been repeating itself.

Then, as now, concerns as to the health effects of alcohol abuse and social disorder stemming from drunkenness have led to calls for radical action.
In November 2010, West Dunbartonshire licensing board took the unprecedented step of declaring its area “overprovided” with almost every type of licensed premises, putting a cork on additional pubs, clubs and off-sale premises.
Their overprovision policy – covering 15 out of 18 localities – has resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of new premises licence applications. Approvals have been granted for bona fide restaurants, but a bid by Costcutter to licence a convenience store in Dumbarton was turned down along with an application by Lidl to secure extra alcohol display space.
Kenny MacAskill has cited the board’s approach as an excellent example of the use of new powers made available by the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005.
Glasgow licensing board has also embraced the health licensing objective in its treatment of variation applications by off-sales operators seeking permission for enlarged alcohol areas: in the past eight months or so all such applications have been rejected.
Absent any challenge to West Dunbartonshire’s bold stance, health lobbyists have been encouraging other licensing boards to follow suit.
In September last year, Alcohol Focus Scotland launched its Re-thinking Alcohol Licensing report at its National Licensing Conference when delegates heard calls for a much stricter licensing regime.
Off-sales outlets were a particular target, with delegates told that, based on official statistics, there had been a 31 per cent increase in off-sale licences in the period from 1980 to 1997.

I expect up to date figures would show a continuing downturn in licence numbers.

But the whole story is that the very same statistics also revealed that the number had then remained more or less static by the end of 2007.
In fact, there had been a modest reduction. A clearer picture will only emerge when the Scottish Government reverts to the publication of annual licensing data, and I expect up to date figures would show a continuing downturn in licence numbers, especially since transition to the new Licensing Act claimed a fair number of casualties in all sectors of the trade
There’s no doubt that the conference’s battle cry is attracting recruits to the cause, for health boards are now taking are more interventionist approach.
A number have opposed new supermarket and convenience store applications.
As reported in SLTN (February 9), the City of Edinburgh licensing board has launched a consultation on a policy change which could see a cap on the number of off-sales outlets in the city as well as a block on applications seeking to increase off-sales capacities.
But if responsible drinkers purchasing alcohol to a budget are afforded better choice it’s hard to imagine that they will somehow become alcohol abusers.
In fact, any notion that the ten per cent of Scottish drinkers who account for 45 per cent of alcohol sales will radically alter their lifestyle simply isn’t sustainable. Drunks who clog up casualty departments at weekends will not be mending their ways overnight.
What’s more, the uncertain nature of the availability/consumption dynamic is underscored by the fact that a Welsh university is currently embarked on a ground breaking three-year study to examine the effect of outlet density on alcohol-related harm.
Of course, there must be cases in which a licensing board might reasonably take an evidence-based view that, judged on its particular merits, the grant of an application would result in overprovision in a particular locality and thereby harm the community.
But blanket bans, no doubt based on the best of intentions, will have absolutely no effect on the rogue elements in the licensed trade (already exposed to much sharper sanctions under the new legislation) nor upon the irresponsible drinkers who burden the health service.