IT’S easier to get a drink In Edinburgh than anywhere else in Scotland - and the Capital has an above-average crime rate compared with the rest of the country.
New research, exploring the figures in more detail than ever before, suggests there is a connection between the two.
The city has a total of 1967 alcohol outlets - 1407 on-sales and 560 off-sales.
That means neighbourhoods in Edinburgh have an average of 48.3 outlets within ten minutes’ walk, nearly three times the Scottish average.
The researchers found crime rates in the parts of the city with the most alcohol outlets are more than four times higher than the areas with the least.
And they said the link between alcohol availability and harm remained even when other factors are taken into account.
The findings are part of a larger Scotland-wide study by Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) and the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH) which also produced evidence of a link between the number of licensed premises and alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths.
The total number of alcohol outlets in the Capital increased from 1755 in 2012 to 1967 in 2016 - that’s an extra by 212 outlets and a 12.1 per cent increase, much larger than the 2.9 per cent rise seen across Scotland as a whole.
On-sales increased by 8.6 per cent and off-sales by 22 per cent.
The study comes as licensing boards across the country are working on official policy statements, due to be published in November, which will deal with issues like over-provision and guide their decisions on individual licence applications.
Edinburgh has already designated the Grassmarket and Cowagte as over-provided and identified seven other areas of “serious or special concern” - Tollcross; Dalry and Fountainbridge; Southside and Canongate; Old Town and Leith Street; South Leith; Leith Docks; and Portobello.
The researchers based their study on data zones - small areas with between 500 and 1000 residents - across the city.
As well as crime rates 4.2 times higher, the neighbourhoods with the most alcohol outlets also had alcohol-related death rates 2.4 times higher and alcohol-related hospital admissions 80 per cent higher.
Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “This research highlights the clear relationship between the availability of alcohol and a range of serious problems.
“There is no action that a licensing board can take to reduce the number of licensed premises, however, they do have the ability to prevent further increases. It is their duty to act in the public interest and where their communities are suffering, they should be applying the brakes.”
Edinburgh licensing board convener Councillor Norman Work said there may well be a stricter approach in the new licensing policy.
“There are people who want over-provision to be extended to cover the whole of Edinburgh and we won’t be doing that. But I think there will be pressure to expand the area of over-provision so there could be some firming up of that.”
Four years ago, the then licensing board convener Eric Milligan caused controversy by rejecting links between the spread of alcohol licenses and a rise in associated crime.
He argued at the time: “The most important thing with regards to the problems caused by alcohol is to encourage people to be responsible for the amount of alcohol that goes down their throat, rather than focussing on side issues like where people go to purchase alcohol and how many outlets there are.”
Cllr Work said he recognised the link. But he also warned: “Edinburgh is a great place to visit and if you restricted licences it could have a detrimental effect on tourists and businesses, so there has to be a balance.”
Paul Waterson of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said about 75 per cent of all alcohol sold in Scotland was sold by the off-trade and the vast majority of that in supermarkets.
“The market is now very much dominated by home drinking and supermarkets,” he said. “And we would agree there are too many off licences.
“Everyone understands pubs are changing. Licensed premises opening now are usually based around food.
“And there are a lot of pubs closing. In some ways the market is telling us there were too many pubs and the market is taking care of that.
“When it comes to over-provision, licensing boards should look at the off trade, especially supermarkets coming in.
“I don’t think anyone could accuse us of having too many pubs based solely around alcohol. I don’t think it’s an on-trade problem.”
Garry Clark of the Federation of Small Businesses, which includes many convenience stores among its members, said such shops played an important role in the local economy.
“Over-provision is a difficult issue for the licensing board. It has to be considered in the round. How is any restriction going to impact on the local economy and what effect will it have on the small retailer which provides a wider service to the community?”
Jim Sherval, NHS Lothian consultant in public health, welcomed the research because it confirmed the link between a concentration of places selling alcohol and harm to health in local areas.
“There are many hidden costs to alcohol. People think about alcohol dependence and liver cirrhosis but over consumption of alcohol contributes to the development of a significant proportion of cancers and other chronic health problems.
“It is also involved in many injuries and assaults. A reduction in alcohol availability will help reduce the level of avoidable harm in the population. This also means fewer people with conditions that need help from the NHS, particularly general practice.
“NHS Lothian’s contribution has been welcomed at the current Edinburgh Licensing Board and we are given a fair hearing. They are looking to develop their policy about the number of outlets just now. Off sales remains our highest concern as 70 per cent of sales go through them and 80 per cent of Edinburgh residents live within 400 metres of at least one off sales. We are very well provided for and that is one factor that is going to make it more likely that people will drink at more harmful levels.”
A police spokeswoman said: “There is much evidence linking density of outlets with alcohol-related harm. To address this, Edinburgh Police Division has a dedicated licensing department who work closely with the licensing board to provide recommendations and advice regarding new applications based on a number of considerations. Officers regularly visit and monitor premises to ensure that they are adhering to their responsibilities regarding the sale of alcohol, and will take appropriate action if necessary.”