POLICE and health chiefs have joined forces to blast a council decision to green light two new off-sales in the same street – amid fears it will fuel violence and antisocial behaviour.
Supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Co-op applied to sell booze from stores due to open in Earl Grey Street, Tollcross.
Police Scotland and NHS Lothian both submitted detailed objections to the move, citing licensed “over-provision” as their key fear.
But despite their united opposition, the licensing board voted 5-3 in favour of granting them.
Chief Superintendent Mark Williams, the city’s policing commander, has voiced real “disappointment” at the step. It is extremely rare for police and health bosses to publicly criticise the board.
A source said: “The police were really angry. They went in with perfectly legitimate objections and were blatantly ignored. It’s questionable whether they will put in the time and effort to make objections from now on if they are made to feel irrelevant.”
In a carefully weighed statement, Chief Supt Williams outlined exactly why Police Scotland was opposed to the granting of further alcohol sales points in a city awash with cheap liquor.
“We know there is a link between over-provision and violence and disorder, and that’s why we formally objected to these applications for two new off-sale licences,” he said.
“There are already a high number of premises licensed to sell alcohol in Tollcross and the area experiences increased levels of antisocial behaviour as a result of the local night-time economy.
“This was an opportunity for the board to restrict the availability of alcohol and positively impact upon issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour and, because of this, we are really disappointed at the decision to approve these new applications.”
He added: “However, we will continue to work alongside the licensed trade to promote the responsible sale of alcohol as part of our commitment to keeping people safe.”
The police objection said granting the applications would be “inconsistent” with the licensing objectives to prevent crime, disorder and public nuisance, and protect and improve public health.
As well as the two new off-sales, Earl Grey Street already has a Tesco store with an alcohol licence.
A Co-op Food Store is located in Leven Street along with a Scottish Co-op in Lothian Road, a Tesco at Fountainbridge and Sainsbury’s stores in Morrison Street and West Port, all of them currently licensed.
Jim Sherval, deputy director of public health at NHS Lothian, joined the condemnation.
He said: “We are very disappointed that two further applications for off-sales licences in Tollcross have been granted.
“The availability of alcohol has an influence on levels of drinking and subsequent health-related problems, regardless of how responsibly the retailers are managed. We all need to drink less.”
Licensing chiefs have been accused of repeatedly ignoring health and police warnings to curb the sale of alcohol. In November last year, a controversial policy governing new applications to sell booze was waved through after weeks of debate ended in deadlock.
The “over-provision” rules fell short of NHS Lothian and Police Scotland calls for beefed-up restrictions on licences and instead identified seven areas of “serious or special concern” – including Tollcross – with applications for those zones to be considered on merit.
Paul Waterson, chief executive of trade body the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, called for a “more centrally controlled system” to determine over-provision.
He said: “We completely agree with the police and NHS that the last thing this area needs is more off-licences. The more off-sales you have in one place, the greater the competition between them and that drives down prices. That, in turn, creates alcohol abuse.
“It shows once again the enforcement of over-provision needs to be more workable and pragmatic. It’s ridiculous if the police and other experts are just ignored by the board.”
Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, agreed the board ruling was “really disappointing”. She said: “There are already high levels of alcohol-related health and social harm in Edinburgh, with alcohol costing the city £221 million a year. In particular, the board’s own statement of licensing policy highlights Tollcross as an area of ‘serious, special concern’ with regards to alcohol problems, so the decision to grant two supermarket licences is highly questionable.
“The more licensed premises there are in an area, the more alcohol problems there will be.” Councillor Chas Booth, a licensing board member who voted against the applications at last Monday’s meeting, said: “This decision was really significant. It was the first major test of the new policy which we wrote towards the end of last year. It was also the first time I can recall since the policy came in that the police and NHS have objected.
“The Licensing (Scotland) Act doesn’t work if the board don’t start taking the issue of over-provision seriously.
“In my view, we have effectively thumbed our noses at [Justice Secretary] Kenny MacAskill and the Act.
“We have to take decisions which are consistent with the Act. If we fail to do so we are failing in our duty.”
Cllr Eric Milligan, who voted in favour of the off-sales, said applications were “always carefully considered” and influenced by factors such as over-provision. He said: “We work closely with the police and health professionals to tackle antisocial behaviour and complaints have actually fallen in Edinburgh by 44 per cent in the past four years.
“More than 91 per cent of residents also reportedly feel safe in the city after dark.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesman said it took “its responsibilities as a licensed retailer very seriously” “We have a good working relationship with the council,” they said.
The Co-op did not want to comment.
POLICY ‘NOT WORTH PAPER IT’S PRINTED ON’
POLICE warnings about links between over-provision and street violence come just months after the control of pubs and off-sales in the Capital was branded a “farce”.
The over-provision rules identified seven areas of “serious or special concern”, which are Tollcross, Dalry and Fountainbridge, Southside and Canongate, Old Town and Leith Street, South Leith, Leith Docks, and Portobello.
The statement of policy, recommended by the council’s QC, was said to place the city in a stronger legal position to defend licensing decisions in court.
Councillor Chas Booth said the new policy was “not worth the paper it’s printed on”.
Research by NHS Lothian has revealed that alcohol provision is closely linked to consumption and antisocial behaviour.
Last year, the News reported how Jim Sherval, a public health specialist with NHS Lothian, had shunned licensing meetings after his objections were continually ignored.
Last week, a flagship SNP plan to introduce a minimum price for alcohol could be held up for years after judges ruled its legality must be decided by the European Union’s top court.
Alex Salmond said the country was facing a growing alcohol problem and suggested the Scottish Whisky Association opposed minimum pricing because it wanted to protect “cheap vodka”.
Who voted for and against the alcohol applications
FOR: Eric Milligan
FOR: Nick Cook
FOR: Mike Bridgman
FOR: Gavin Barrie
FOR: Jeremy Balfour
AGAINST: Chas Booth
against: Norman Work
AGAINST: David Walker