Time for the right kind of action

Scottish Government should be nurturing trade businesses rather than heaping more regulation on them, writes publican Jeff Ellis

Is it just me or does it seem as though the Scottish Government is doing its best to wreck the infrastructure that is vital to the tourism industry?

Rather than rush to the aid of businesses trying to operate in the sector, and nurture and boost them, legislation and regulation is being piled up wantonly.

Jeffx Ellis
Jeff Ellis said the on-trade has never seen so much regulation.

Clearly the health aims that underpinned the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 were vital in order to tackle the problems with alcohol that Scotland was facing and, in my view, there was a lot about the 2005 Act that was commendable. It should be remembered that these aims were supported by the licensed trade as well as everybody else.

However, at the time, the cynic in me was hoping that those noble intentions would not be undermined; but my cynicism was well-founded because we have now arrived at a situation where we have a two-tier licensing system and where the softest target is regularly used to show that “something is being done”, irrespective of whether that target is appropriate or not.

Simple statistics demonstrate where action needs to be taken but there has not been the political will to take on the large corporate interests because of their financial clout.

Instead the small chains and sole traders are hammered time and again.

The latest fad is ‘overprovision’.

This is a concept of the economically illiterate. It is a command economy measure being applied to a market economy.

Lesson one of introductory economics is being ignored – that of supply and demand. If the demand is there it will be supplied one way or another.

Furthermore, there are very direct lessons from history when it comes to alcohol – to wit prohibition.

This concept of overprovision has resulted in the streamlining of licensing brought about by the 2005 Act becoming corrupted and producing the worst of all worlds.

Subsequent events have shown that the attempt to treat all licences equally has been undermined and it is clearer than ever that treating all licences as being equal is simplistic in the extreme.

Overprovision fails to look at sales volumes, thus five outlets could be allowed to close to make way for one large one. But if those five outlets were selling ten cases a week and the large one is selling 150 cases a week what have you gained?

It was intended that licensing should be divorced from economic considerations and that argument is still being forcefully made, to the effect that economic considerations have no place in licensing board policy statements.

However, my second issue with the overprovision concept is very much tied to the local economy.

This is that no account is taken of the nature of the licence.

Whilst it might be considered undesirable to have a fifth supermarket where there are four already, this is most definitely not necessarily the case with restaurants, tourist shops selling whisky miniatures, whisky shops again selling single malts predominantly to tourists, high-end delicatessens seeking to sell fine wines to go with their produce, and guest houses seeking to offer wine to guests with their evening meals.

All these examples have an extremely limited impact on the health aims of the legislation and local authorities would have a legitimate interest in boosting their night-time and tourism economies with such licensing – and this licensing would be blocked if the ‘overprovisionists’ have their way and there is a moratorium on licences.

The final point on overprovision is that this has all been overtaken by shopping online and home delivery.

Given the growth in this part of the grocery sector the whole concept of overprovision is being made increasingly irrelevant.

All of which leads me back to my original point that these measures seem to be a means of showing that a tough stance is being taken, whilst quietly avoiding the action that really needs to be taken.

The on-trade and independent off-trade has never been greater regulated and trained but still the legislation keeps coming.

And now with the ‘booze and bullets’ Bill we have the latest bright idea with a proposed sixth licensing objective: “the reduction of consumption”.

Which lame-brain came up with that one?

The existing legislation makes it an offence to sell to someone who is already intoxicated.

Besides that, the licensee can only control what goes on in his/her premises. What goes on after an individual has left the premises is beyond legislation.

What other businesses are likely to see legislation designed to reduce their sales and thus jeopardise them? Turkeys voting for Christmas.

• Jeff Ellis owns The Bear Tavern in Newburgh, Fife.