This week Edinburgh’s Licensing Board refused an application from Sainsbury’s to expand the shelving it dedicates to alcohol in its West Port shop in Tollcross.
The proposed expansion would have increased the alcohol availability by around 30 per cent. West Port is in an area that has already been marked as one of “overprovision” – in other words, where there are too many shops selling alcohol. There are a total of 12 off-licences within around 250 metres of the West Port shop, with just less than 300 metres of booze shelving between them. This information, coupled with objections from NHS Lothian, the police and the Tollcross Community Council, saw a majority of councillors on the board voting to decline the application.
Scotland has a complex relationship with alcohol. Alcohol is certainly a wonderful social lubricant, enjoyed in moderation by many, myself included. Brewers, distillers and the hospitality industry as a whole contribute to our economy, create jobs and help foster an image of a welcoming Scotland.
And yet according to the most recent health figures from the Scottish Government, one in four men and one in six women drink to levels that are considered “hazardous or harmful” by health experts.
Clearly a very sizeable proportion of our population has a drink problem. And that has an impact not just on them but on those around them: their families, colleagues, and indeed on the workers in the NHS who may eventually treat them.
Critics ask what relevance this has to a few more metres of booze shelving in a Tollcross Sainsbury’s?
Surely, they say, if someone has a booze problem, they’ll get hold of it, no matter how far they have to travel to get it, and no matter how many metres of shelving are available? And yet the evidence from nearly 100 international studies is that the availability of alcohol does indeed have an impact on health. The most recent in a long line of studies was completed by Edinburgh and Glasgow academics and concludes that the relationship between availability and poor health is “likely to be causal”. This, to my mind, is the smoking gun.
Nearly everyone involved in regulating the sale of alcohol agrees we need to tackle hazardous and harmful drinking. But the measures we take to tackle that problem are not universally agreed. I believe, and the majority of Licensing Board members voting this week apparently also agree, this means we need to address the availability of alcohol, especially in areas currently deemed overprovided for. I hope this week’s decision is a turning point that marks the Edinburgh board listening more closely to the experts who advise us. Whether it is or not, only time will tell.
Chas Booth is the Green councillor for Leith and a member of Edinburgh’s Licensing Board