Licensing chief denies disorder linked with alcohol

Councillor Eric Milligan. Picture: Alan Rennie
Councillor Eric Milligan. Picture: Alan Rennie
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A ROW between the police and Edinburgh City Council over the growing number of pubs and off-sales flooding the Capital has intensified – after the licensing chief rejected links between the spread of alcohol sales and public disorder.

In an exclusive interview, veteran councillor Eric Milligan claimed there was “no direct connection” between the growth of licensed outlets and levels of antisocial behaviour – citing a 45 per cent reduction in complaints over the past four years.

His stance is understood to have privately angered police chiefs – given cherry-picked falling antisocial behaviour statistics to shore up a view simply masks a deeper and more complex booze-fuelled crime picture

It also flies in the face of research by Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership and the World Health Organisation which call for limits on the spread of alcohol vendors “to reduce alcohol-related harm”.

It also comes a week after Police Scotland took the unprecedented step of locking horns with Edinburgh licensing chiefs over a decision to grant alcohol permits in Tollcross to supermarket giant Sainsbury’s and Co-Op – an area previously considered awash with bars and off-sales.

In an unprecedented attack, Chief Superintendent Mark Williams voiced real “disappointment” over the ruling insisting the city had missed an opportunity to “restrict the availability of alcohol and positively impact upon issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour”.

But today, Cllr Milligan, convener of the licensing board, hardened his position in the stand-off and dismissed the over-provision argument entirely.

He said: “It is not connected with how many bars and restaurants there are – there are other reasons why too many people over-indulge in alcohol. It’s not just about how many licensed premises there are.

“You have to try to get the message across to people that they as individuals have got to take responsibility for their own lives and it’s about how much alcohol you are putting through your system not about how many bars there are.”

Cllr Milligan, who celebrates 40 years at City Chambers this week, insisted that, while open to advice, it was the licensing board which made the final decision on alcohol applications.

“The police offer advice,” he said, “but we do not as yet live in a police state where they have the sole responsibility to determine these things.

“I sometimes think that the health lobby would just like none of us to drink alcohol at all. There are countries in the world where people are not allowed to drink alcohol but they are not very free nor the countries I want to emulate.”

Official figures seen by the Evening News reveal only one licence application was refused in 2012-13 – compared with the 67 passed by the city’s licensing board.

The latest research also reveals Edinburgh to have the highest rate per head of licensed premises of any major Scottish city – with 50 per cent more pubs per capita than the national average.

Privately, police chiefs are said to be “furious” that expert advice is routinely ignored.

It is understood Police Scotland see the focus on over-provision and antisocial behaviour as too simplistic and misses the impact it has on a range of public health and safety issues including violence, hospital admissions, risky and underage drinking, alcohol related traffic accidents, sexually transmitted disease and child abuse or neglect.

In a carefully worded statement, Chief Superintendent Mark Williams – Edinburgh’s policing commander – reaffirmed his stance on the Capital’s drinking culture.

He said: “I absolutely stand by the statement I made last week in relation to the over-provision of alcohol in the city.

“Reducing alcohol-related harm is a priority for Police Scotland and for our partners.

“I very much welcome any debate into the subject as it can only help to raise awareness of the significant number of public safety and health issues it impacts on.”

Last November, licensing chiefs waved through a controversial policy that fell well short of NHS Lothian and Police Scotland calls for beefed-up regulations.

Instead of earmarking districts of “over-provision” they identified seven areas of “serious or special concern” which included Tollcross, Dalry and Fountainbridge, Southside and Canongate, Old Town and Leith Street, South Leith, Leith Docks and Portobello.

Critics branded the new policy a “farce” and “not worth the paper it’s printed on”.

Chas Booth, Green councillor for Leith and a vocal supporter of beefed-up licensing laws, branded Cllr Milligan’s views on over-provision “astonishing”.

He said: “There is strong evidence from the police, NHS Lothian and others that ‘pre-loading’ of booze bought from off-licenses contributes to crime, disorder and public nuisance later in the evening.

“Anyone who ignores this evidence is sticking his head in the sand. Consuming too much booze also has long-term negative effects on our health and on society.

“NHS Lothian make this clear at nearly every meeting of the licensing board.

“To claim there is no connection between these health and social problems and the number of off-licences is ignoring the facts.

“I find it astonishing that anyone who claims to have listened to the health board denies the connection.”

After watching licensing chiefs overrule a string of NHS objections to booze applications last year, Jim Sherval, deputy director of public health, stopped attending board meetings for several months.

The News reported in November that while NHS Lothian had formally objected to 19 applications on health grounds over the past two years, licences have eventually been granted on every single occasion.

In a statement today, he said: “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.”

Figures show Edinburgh has the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths across the Lothians and is considered the “most dangerous place” for ambulance staff with the highest number of assaults on paramedics.

ANALYSIS

By Dr Evelyn Gillan, Chief executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland

FOR Councillor Milligan to say that alcohol problems are not linked to the number of places selling alcohol is deeply concerning.

There is clear evidence linking availability and harm, and for the convener of the Edinburgh licensing board to be unaware of this evidence is very worrying.

All licensing boards in Scotland are required by law to promote the licensing objectives which include “preventing crime and disorder”, “securing public safety” and “protecting and improving public health”.

Edinburgh licensing board has been presented with quality evidence from the health board, the police and local communities which demonstrates the levels of alcohol-related harm experienced by people living in the city.

That evidence led to the development of a licensing policy for Edinburgh that identified seven areas as being of “serious, special concern”. Tollcross was one of the areas identified. With the availability of alcohol having been consistently proven to have a direct impact on the levels of alcohol harm, one of the most effective things the licensing board can do to prevent levels of harm from getting worse is to restrict the number of outlets selling alcohol.

To have granted two new off-licences in an area of “serious, special concern” which already has more than adequate provision of off-licences is irresponsible. The licensing board has a duty to protect the public interest and decisions like these are clearly failing to do so.