Will health licensing role bring a more balanced approach to objections?
WHEN Scotland’s largest health board launches a campaign against the availability of alcohol – linked to the appointment of a ‘health improvement lead for alcohol licensing’ who’ll appear at Glasgow’s licensing board – you can be sure very interesting times lie head.
A previous foray into the licensing arena by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHS GGC) saw the indiscriminate, badly-considered carpet bombing of applications – with embarrassing results.
During the first sortie, back in November 2010, the board lodged a formal objection to an application by a Glasgow supermarket planning a re-fit and requesting a substantial reduction in the size of the alcohol display area.
That intervention attracted fire from the licensing board’s convener as soon as the health board’s representative took to the floor – “It’s very disappointing that they had not taken the time to find out what the application was about” – and an apology from NHS GGC, whose spokeswoman said that the application had been “misread”.
Yet, just three months later, the health board was back in action, this time opposing a new licence application by a cash and carry operator primarily serving the Chinese restaurant trade.
The proposal involved a small alcohol display area for rice wines and specialist beers – just 3.6 square metres – but once again NHS GGC hadn’t done its homework, urging a refusal on the basis of alcohol-related illness in the local “intermediate data zone”. At the same meeting, the health board also argued for the rejection of ‘pavement licences’ catering for al fresco diners at popular Glasgow city centre venues.
Not surprisingly, the licensing board was unimpressed, while applicants fumed because of the needless expense of obtaining legal assistance.
The board’s convener issued another stinging rebuke, referring to “highly-paid officials from the NHS who expect us to make decisions on the basis that alcohol is bad”, while a senior trade figure called on public health professionals to learn something about the subject before “pontificating” and setting themselves up as “licensing experts”.
There was even a suggestion that any further gaffes might result in the health board being landed with the licensing board’s administrative costs – a step permitted by the Licensing Act where an objection is considered “frivolous”.
By my reckoning, there have been no health board objections to Glasgow applications since January 2011.
Let’s hope for a more fact-based approach and an end to scattergun attacks.
I reckon the creation of the new post must be a sign these criticisms have been taken to heart. That would be commendable.
So, let’s hope for a much more balanced, targeted and factually-based approach and an end to the scattergun attacks.
On the other hand, evidence from other parts of the country has not been encouraging.
It’s not unusual to see ‘one size fits all’ NHS objections supported by a welter of statistics claiming that any increase in the availability of alcohol – usually (but not exclusively) from off-sales and no matter how small – will inevitably lead to irresponsible consumption and, in turn, to health harms.
Disappointingly, there has also been a blinkered failure to appreciate that some large scale retail or leisure developments in economically-depressed areas with high unemployment will produce positive regenerative results with health benefits.
Of all the remarkable claims I’ve seen in health objections, one in particular takes the biscuit: it’s been suggested that allowing children and young persons wider access to a family restaurant could ‘normalise’ attitudes to alcohol consumption and lead to the development of alcohol-related health problems in later life.
That assertion is, of course, utter rubbish.
Surely, the responsible consumption of alcohol in a properly regulated environment is precisely the sort of ‘normalisation’ message we should be sending to young people?
The health licensing objective involves “protecting and improving public health”; it’s certainly not about demonising alcohol and the licensed trade.
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