SUPERMARKET giant Sainsbury’s and two independent retailers have been hit with a booze ban after health chiefs were able to make official objections for the first time.
NHS Lothian specialists warned Edinburgh Licensing Board that granting the licence for the supermarket – being planned as part of the redevelopment of the Cowgate fire site – went against attempts to protect public health.
Two other independent retailers also saw their applications to sell alcohol refused for the same reason.
Sainsbury’s has been forced to halt plans to open the Local store at 80 South Bridge and is likely to launch an appeal which will be seen as a test case for the new policy.
Health boards have recently been handed the same powers as police to object to new licences but this is the first evidence of them being used, representing a huge shift in licensing policy. Edinburgh brought in strict guidelines on overprovision in February, which in itself equates to a near blanket ban on new licences.
In the objections to the Sainsbury’s application, NHS Lothian produced a report which showed the Old Town already had among the highest number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in the city.
Today the Scottish Government welcomed the stricter approach, while Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said the move “advanced the public good” and paved the way for a tough new approach.
Councillor Cammy Day, a member of the board, said: “Until now the only evidence we’ve been given when considering applications is related to crime and disorder.
“Now we’re getting hard evidence from NHS Lothian professionals on life expectancy and alcohol admissions to hospital. This reflects how alcohol has become one of the biggest social issues Scotland faces – and we need to do something about that.”
The city centre currently has 2.5 miles of shelves of alcohol. It also has 20 licences per 10,000 residents, which is double the city average and does not include tourist stores.
Global News, also on South Bridge, was refused a licence for the same seasons, while a new convenience store on Dalry Road was turned down for being in an area which scores highly in hospital admissions and police crime reports.
The Evening News has already reported how some retailers have managed to argue against the licensing board’s strict new approach. Tesco suggested that upmarket Roseburn was so far removed from areas of deprivation that another licence should be allowed, while Adam Pietrzak, who runs a Polish deli, managed to secure a licence on the condition that he only sold imported alcohol from his own country.
Another board member, Eric Barry, said they had been too lenient on applicants in recent years. He added: “I was very disappointed when Sainsbury’s at Longstone came to us asking for 600 metres of alcohol display – a huge amount – then after they came back again they asked for 300 metres.
“Cheap alcohol is the source of the cheap drinking problem we have in Edinburgh and Scotland. Now the board is waking up to health implications that licensed premises represent.”
Prior to the decision on Sainsbury’s, police also supplied evidence to the board which showed there had been 85 crimes within a 50m radius of the proposed store between last month and the previous March, including 32 assaults.
Officers said almost all occurred at night or in the early hours of the morning and suggested most were linked to excessive drinking.
Catriona Grant, who lives in the Cowgate and submitted a public objection to the board, said she and other residents are deeply concerned about availability of alcohol in the area.
She wrote: “There are currently issues with street drinking, stag and hen nights blighting the area – another supermarket selling cheap alcohol is not conducive to public safety and public health.”
Having health experts consult with decision makers gives licensing boards a stronger stance against major operators.
Two years ago the Glasgow Licensing Board refused a number of major supermarkets permission to expand alcohol display areas on the grounds it could be detrimental to the wellbeing of the city.
However, they had to make a U-turn when threatened with potential legal action, which would have claimed that councillors did not have enough guidance to refuse the bids on health grounds.
Jim Sherval, specialist in public health at NHS Lothian, who now advises the Edinburgh board, produced a report highlighting the different levels of hospital admissions due to alcohol across the Capital in response to the new applications.
He said: “We welcome the opportunity to use local health information, such as alcohol-related hospital admissions, to assist the licensing board to fulfil their role to protect and promote public health.
“NHS Lothian has been working closely with the licensing board to better understand the link between licensing patterns and the effects of alcohol on the population of Edinburgh.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “It is essential that our licensing process works in the best interests of protecting and improving public health.
“We recognise there is a role for health boards in that process, which is why we amended the Alcohol Act to give them a clearer statutory role. We welcome their engagement with licensing boards.”
A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman said: “Sainsbury’s is disappointed with the licensing refusal for the South Bridge store.
“Sainsbury’s takes its responsibilities as a licensed retailer seriously and it is important to remember the vast majority of our customers buy alcohol as part of a shop to consume responsibly in their home.
“The South Bridge store would be a major investment for Edinburgh and would regenerate this site. We are currently reviewing options before deciding our next steps.”
Not so long ago licensing boards were mostly concerned with what went on in pubs and clubs because that’s where most of us did our drinking.
But because the way we drink has changed, they have had to rethink, particularly as they are now required by law to protect the health of the people they serve.
The shift towards home drinking has been driven by cheap prices and easy availability of alcohol. In the past there were strict limits on where and when you could buy alcohol. In 1960 we drank just over five litres of alcohol per person annually and had one of the lowest alcohol death rates in Western Europe. Today, we drink nearly 12 litres of alcohol and have one of the highest death rates.
Edinburgh Licensing Board received sound advice from NHS Lothian about the links between harm and availability. They are right to take a decision that will advance the public good. We will see more decisions like this as regulators and public bodies face up to their responsibility to protect the public from alcohol harm.
Dr Evelyn Gillan
Alcohol Focus Scotland
HOW THE DECISIONS ARE MADE
LICENSING applications for premises with on-sales or off-sales go before boards run by each local authority for approval.
In Edinburgh ten councillors, led by licensing leader Marjorie Thomas, hear bids from owners or lawyers who argue their case.
The elected members take advice from police inspector Gordon Hunter, council licensing manager Martin Rich, building standards group leader Muir Somerville, and now NHS Lothian public health expert Jim Sherval, who is well respected for his work in the fields of drugs and alcohol. They then vote to decide whether or not an application should be approved.
Alcohol admissions per 10,000 people
Greendykes & Niddrie Mains: 215.32
Restalrig & Lochend: 195.96
Southside/ Canongate: 169.90
Old Town and Leith Street: 168.71
Marchmont West: 44.73
Bonaly/ Pentlands: 41.51
Murrayfield & Ravelston: 33.02