For any of us who have been responsible for the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003, we know that much of the media and political hysteria over the liberalisation of the drinking laws is unfounded. The majority of bars and clubs have been remarkably restrained in their applications for longer hours and it is still almost impossible in many parts of the UK to go from one pub to another through the night on a drink-fuelled binge.
The act has had many positive effects. The burden on licensees to run responsible premises is clear; local residents have powers to call for reviews; the responsibilities of statutory agencies to play a full part is now commonplace and best practice is being shared by local authorities. However, the government now needs to take the next step and act to respond to the very real concerns of people over access to cheap alcohol and draw distinctions between different retailers and what are acceptable and unacceptable examples of consumption.
Drinking in a bar, pub or restaurant is in a largely controlled environment. Patrons are contained within a building or beer garden and access is limited by the need to purchase from a member of staff. ‘On sales’ therefore are completely different to ‘off sales’ where the manner of consumption is entirely different. While off-licences may provide a convenient outlet on our street corners, they pose the most serious challenges when it comes to controlling alcohol consumption.
Street drinking and under-age sales predominantly come from these outlets. The fines imposed for the latter offence are ineffective and repeated offences are required before licences can be revoked.
Under the current legislation local authorities can’t control the number of licensed premises, nor their type. There is little provision to deal with over-provision, which can lead to a saturation of outlets in our town centres. Local councils must be allowed to set limits on the number of different types of alcohol retailers within their licensing policies. This is the only option until either the drinks industry or retailers take a more responsible approach to selling and marketing their products.
Go into any off-licence and you’ll see large bottles of high strength alcohol for unbelievably cheap prices. But the Portman Group has no definition of ‘super strength’ and supermarkets continue to sell alcohol cheaply. If the government won’t control this aspect of supply, then licensing authorities must be able to control their distribution.
And then there is the issue of what is acceptable when it comes to how alcohol is consumed. Increasingly, authorities such as my own are introducing zones where alcohol consumption in public can be stopped by the police. But this power should go further. Glasgow has led the way on this by banning any alcohol consumption in public. The government must make it easier to introduce similar policies in the rest of the UK to respond to public concerns.
The Licensing Act has clearly created a carrot and stick for pubs, clubs and restaurants. If premises are well run, then licensees are able to easily make the case for longer hours and, conversely, it allows licences to be revoked or restricted in response to public concerns. But the balance hasn’t been struck when it comes to other retailers. It hasn’t allowed authorities to define the communities which they serve and doesn’t allow unscrupulous retailers to be proportionately punished for breaking the law. Nor does the act allow authorities to properly control the public realm by defining where is and is not acceptable for alcohol to be consumed.
As the alcohol industry continues to profit and push down the price of booze on the streets of Britain, it is time for the government to approach the different parts of the industry in different ways. Local authorities are ready to take up the challenge of street drinking and under-age sales, if only the government will let us.
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