City licensing chiefs are split over whether to launch a major crackdown on alcohol sales in the Capital, the Evening News can reveal.
New alcohol licences for pubs, supermarkets and off licences could be effectively banned across large swathes of Edinburgh if health campaigners, who say too many drink outlets increase consumption, get their way. They want to see the city adopt a tougher licensing policy statement, which is set be overhauled this month.
While some members of the city’s licensing board, who will make a decision over the content of the vital document, support a clampdown over the issue of “over-provision”, others fear a draconian policy will harm the city’s economy, putting retailers off moving in to empty units and meaning areas in need of regeneration and new jobs are left to stagnate.
Labour councillor Cammy Day admitted that there was “a divide” between his colleagues on the licensing board and accused SNP members of adopting a position that was at odds with their party’s national policies, such as minimum pricing, which have focussed on driving down Scotland’s traditionally high levels of drinking.
Following a meeting of the city’s licensing forum, which advises the board and has recommended that seven more areas of the Capital are classed as “areas of over-provision”, Cllr Day said: “We need to take a harder line. The board can play a part by saying we can stop having so much alcohol available. One more licence leads to another one, and it never ends.
“There is a divide in the board, but we have heard from the forum and they are clear that we need to change over-provision in the city.”
A report published by the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership as part of a consultation over the new licensing policy said that Edinburgh has a higher number of licensed premises per head than Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, while the Capital’s residents drink more than the Scottish average.
Alcohol, and the strain that it puts on the NHS, police, social care services and business is said to cost the city more than £220 million per year. Experts have said that in areas awash with alcohol retailers, evidence shows that people drink more.
But Mike Bridgman, licensing board member and SNP councillor for Portobello and Craigmillar, said he was yet to be convinced by the arguments and that alcohol problems would not be solved by “saying Edinburgh is closed for business”.
“I do believe education has a role to play,” he said. “If you say a shop can’t open people will just go to another street. Someone who has a drink or drug problem will go to where the supply is. Alcohol is available whatever. People will travel to get it.”
Previously, the city has refused alcohol licences because of the number of outlets in an area, but the decisions have been reversed on appeal, with licensing board convenor Eric Milligan commenting that the latest score was “Sainsbury’s two, council nil”, after the supermarket was successful in legal challenges.
It emerged in May that since NHS Lothian had been given the opportunity to object to licences, all 19 that had been objected to by the health board had eventually been granted.
The meeting to discuss the new licensing policy was told that by setting out the council’s stance in clearer terms, the authority will be better placed to withstand legal appeals.
Moves to tighten up the policy has the support of police, with Matt Richards, Edinburgh Division superintendant, saying: “Alcohol is a relatively affordable commodity and the more readily accessible it becomes, the more there is the chance of misuse.
“Domestic violence and the impact it has on generations of families and communities remains heavily influenced by over-consumption. Any over-provision of alcohol increases the probability of this problem continuing.”
Jim Sherval, a public health specialist with NHS Lothian who has penned a report into the issue of alcohol over-provision in Edinburgh, has been lobbying to reduce the number of new alcohol licences granted in areas that are already well-provided for.
Mr Sherval, who previously shunned licensing meetings after his objections were continually ignored, expressed exasperation with Cllr Bridgman’s remarks, and rubbished his claim that a greater emphasis on education would make a difference.
He said: “I’m disappointed – I was hoping I had got my position across. If people are physically dependant on alcohol they will get it, but we’re not just talking about those people – it’s folks who are drinking a bit too much.
“Educating kids has little impact. It’s not going to make a blind bit of difference if we have another hour of PSE and a teacher saying ‘hey kids, don’t do it’. We are fighting a tsunami of messages going the other way. If their parents and grandparents are drinking and a community is awash with alcohol education will have no impact.”
Mr Sherval said that the measures would target drinkers who would not necessarily end up with liver cirrhosis, but may be increasing their risk of developing diseases like cancer by regularly downing too much drink. He added: “We are trying to improve health. Not in a prohibition way but we are saying this is one of the control levers that is available.”
The city’s licensing forum, which brings together representatives of the community, pub trade and police, has recommended seven more places – Tollcross; Dalry and Fountainbridge; Southside and Canongate; Old Town and Leith Street; South Leith; Leith Docks; and Portobello – should be declared “areas of over-provision”, in addition to the Grassmarket/Cowgate.
It would mean that future off-sales and on-sales licences would be refused in the areas if the applicant could not show they would not contribute to the problem of over-provision.
Since 2000, more than 50 studies have been produced which have shown a “significant association” between the number of alcohol outlets and alcohol-related problems including child neglect, violence, hospital admissions, underage drinking and sexually-transmitted diseases, according to the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership report.
The city’s licensing board will meet to discuss its new statement of licensing policy on November 18, with the document due to be formally adopted seven days later.