A licence to chill or a culture fuelled by booze?

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Chas Booth and Aileen Keyes debate limiting the availability of alcohol after new city stores were given the green light to sell drink.

AGAINST

By AILEEN KEYES

THE recent decisions by Edinburgh licensing board make clear that there is no robust evidence to link the availability of alcohol to harm. The board’s own proposal for broader overprovision powers acknowledged that evidence about the type of establishment where alcohol was sold in Edinburgh was limited, but yet it decided to push ahead with proposals to target off-licensed premises.

Whilst we agree that there is a minority of people in Scotland who continue to drink to harmful excess, new policies to tackle the problem must build on existing and targeted solutions and not penalise the responsible majority. But we must also recognise that progress is being made. The Scottish Government’s own

figures show that overall levels of consumption have been dropping since 2004 and the majority of men and women are drinking within the recommended weekly limits.

Of course there is more that can be done but our retailer members are already leading the way by investing in Community Alcohol Partnerships, which use education to tackle problems such as underage drinking. Our members are keen to work with the licensing board and others to support the responsible retailing and consumption of alcohol but this policy does little to strengthen that approach.

We know from our retailer members that most alcohol sold by them is bought as part of a weekly grocery shop and consumed responsibly at home. By clamping down on the numbers of licences, this policy seeks only to give an in-built competitive advantage to existing businesses in the area, and will have no overall impact on the quantity of alcohol sold in Edinburgh or in reducing alcohol harm.

That is why we welcome the comments from Councillor Joanna Mowatt, who acknowledged that “there is not necessarily a correlation between the number of off-licences and the impact on health – many affluent areas have a high number of off-licences and enjoy better health”. To look at the density of licensed premises in isolation is surely missing the bigger picture. A new job, better housing or access to a wider variety of fruit and vegetables, provided by large retailers, must also have a significant impact on improving health outcomes in Edinburgh.

We know from experience elsewhere that targeted interventions at problem drinkers have the greatest impact. So we should focus our efforts where they will make a difference, targeting those people that misuse alcohol, enforcing existing laws and punishing those responsible for antisocial behaviour. Not penalising responsible businesses and restricting consumer choice.

• Aileen Keyes is director of public affairs at the Wine and Spirit Trade Association

FOR

BY CHAS BOOTH

SCOTLAND’S relationship with alcohol is complicated. While we are the home of whisky and ceilidhs, alcohol is responsible for an increasing amount of harm. Time off work due to a hangover has an economic cost. Parenting failings have a social cost. And there’s the obvious health costs from illness and premature death.

All of these different costs add up: research suggests the total cost of alcohol-related harm in Edinburgh was more than £220 million last year. That’s more than £450 for every man, woman and child in our city – a

staggering amount.

But in tackling our booze culture it’s a mistake to focus only on super-strength lager, or on whether children are drinking, important though these issues are. We must consider the availability of alcohol as a whole.

Price is important. Minimum pricing of alcohol will help reduce consumption. But the availability of alcohol must be tackled too, and that’s where Edinburgh’s councillors who sit on the licensing board come in. We have a duty to licence the sale of alcohol, and are required to refuse licences if we believe they will negatively impact public health, crime and disorder or expose children to harm. Likewise, we are required by law to turn down applications if granting them would lead to too many licenced premises in a locality (known as “overprovision”).

Yet recent decisions by the licensing board suggest we are not fulfilling that duty: several new licences have been granted, despite strong evidence from NHS Lothian that granting them would increase overprovision. There are 26 existing licenced premises within 500 metres of the Portobello Sainsbury’s approved this week. If that isn’t overprovision, what is?

It has been suggested that we don’t have the legal grounds to turn these applications down. But a recent case in Glasgow offers a different perspective. There, the licensing board’s decision to refuse a licence was upheld by the Sheriff Court. It suggests that if a decision is made with reference to the number of existing licences and, crucially, if licensing boards make use of their local knowledge, then these decisions will hold up in court.

So I am bewildered at the reluctance of some of my fellow licensing board members to refuse further licences on the basis of the evidence presented to us. The lesson from the Glasgow judgement is that with a sound and methodical approach to the evidence, a decision to refuse will be backed by the courts. Until we start to act on the basis of the evidence presented to us, we will be failing in our duty under the law, and will be failing the people of Edinburgh.

• Chas Booth is Green councillor for Leith and a member of Edinburgh’s licensing board.

LICENCES BLOW

PUBLIC health chiefs last week called a decision to let four new mini-supermarkets sell alcohol a “major blow” in the battle to beat booze problems in the Capital.

Licences were granted to Sainsbury’s for two new branches at Princes Mall and Portobello High Street, while rival Tesco was given the green light to sell booze at planned stores at Morrison Street and Princes Street.

Health chiefs had called for all four bids to be rejected as the stores will serve areas which have an above-average number of off-licences per 10,000 people.

Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s plans for a store on South Bridge were rejected after officials at NHS Lothian objected on health grounds. However, in October, licensing chiefs dropped their opposition and allowed the firm to press ahead.