England's 2004 national alcohol strategy highlighted crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour related to underage drinking and drinking in urban centres at night. Similar priorities were reflected in the 2003 Licensing Act covering England and Wales, which targeted crime and disorder, public safety, public nuisance, and the protection of children, but also aimed to give businesses greater freedom and flexibility and create greater choice for consumers. Under the act, licensing authorities have limited scope for reviewing, refusing or amending licences. A premises licence, once granted, may last indefinitely unless revoked. Authorities must grant properly formulated applications which are not objected to and cannot use their discretion to refuse or amend. Neither can they review an existing licence on the grounds that premises in that area are associated with violence or disorder unless that can be linked to those particular premises.
However, the authority can identify areas where the concentration of (normally on-licence) premises is giving rise to serious problems of nuisance and disorder, the presumption being that applications for new licences or for variations in existing licences which would aggravate the situation will be refused. Even then, the presumption only comes in to force if other relevant authorities or residents make cogent objections on these grounds. As of the end of March 2008, over 110 such areas had been declared by 73 of the roughly 380 licensing authorities in England and Wales. There is no provision for authorities to act on their own initiative, or to refuse or rescind licences on the grounds that outlet density might be reaching a critical point threatening future crime or disorder. If crime or disorder are experienced beyond the vicinity of the premises, licensees are exempt from the consequences for the community of the alcohol they serve. Licensing authorities can respond to complaints but cannot initiate their own reviews of premises' licences. Nor can they attach conditions or promote generalised voluntary arrangements relating to 'happy hours' or other promotions. Given limited powers and what appear to have been limited impacts on alcohol consumption patterns, at least in the short-term, the act as a whole (including the extension of licensing hours) has had little if any impact on overall levels of alcohol-related crime and disorder.
When the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee reviewed the act in 2009, in respect of density-related problems it felt the act had not gone far enough, arguing that "density of venues in a particular area should always be a consideration taken into account by a licensing authority when considering an application for a premises licence, in order to ensure that the police and other authorities are able to adequately ensure the maintenance of public order". The government rejected the proposal but did via the proposed mandatory licensing code address another of the committee's concerns – promotions which encourage very heavy drinking. If parliament agrees, the new code will ban certain 'irresponsible' promotions, such as 'all you can drink for £10' or 'women drink free' deals.
In some respects the act curtailed the scope for public involvement, though in others it opened it up. Representations from local residents have to pass a number of tests before being considered at all, including the test that the objection could have been made earlier in the process. Section 5 of the 2003 Act requires a licensing authority to prepare and publish a statement of its licensing policy every three years after consultation with residents among others, an opportunity for density-related problems to to be identified and if they meet the conditions of the act, to result in policy changes which identify new or revised areas where licences will be subject to the refusal presumption.
Rather than curtailing density, more emphasis is being placed on tackling the problems to which density may contribute. An action plan for implementing the English alcohol strategy requires local crime and disorder reduction partnerships (inter-agency groups including non-statutory bodies) to develop a strategy to tackle (among other things) alcohol-related disorder and misuse. In 2009 this was backed by £1.5 million to help 50 "local trouble spots of alcohol-related crime and disorder" address these problems, additional to £3 million already awarded to crime and disorder reduction partnerships in England and Wales to enforce relevant law and support multi-agency campaigns to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder.
Some of those new powers the money may have helped implement were contained in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. This enabled police and/or trading standards officers to ban the sale of alcohol for up to 48 hours at premises that are persistently selling alcohol to under-18s and expedited licence reviews, which enable the police to apply for a fast-track review of the licences of premises associated with serious crime and serious disorder. The act also contains a rare provision for sanctioning the owners of licensed premises in an area without having to show that their particular establishment was specifically associated with particular acts of crime or disorder. These powers take the form of the ability for a local authority to declare an Alcohol Disorder Zone in an area which has suffered from alcohol-related nuisance or disorder which cannot be tied to one particular premises, and failing rectification, to levy charges on licence holders in the zone to pay for law enforcement costs. However, guidance makes clear that this to be was to be a last resort and at the end of July 2009, no such zones had been declared.
Action by health and local authorities may also be motivated by some of the indicators (for example, those explicitly aiming to reduce substance-related harm) through which they are held to account, including public concern over drunk or rowdy behaviour, hospital admissions for alcohol-related harm, and alcohol-related violent crime and disorder, especially assault with injury.
Licensing law is the same in Wales as in England, but the 2008 Welsh substance misuse strategy is more explicit about its support for vigorous community action to make the best use of legal powers, and makes illegally serving drunk as well as underage patrons a priority. Taking an avowedly environmental approach, the strategy aims to "Look beyond licensees to take a holistic approach to the management of our towns and cities during the evening and night time so that everyone is able to visit them without the fear of alcohol-related crime and disorder". An action plan committed the Welsh Assembly to by 2009 establish four pilot projects along these lines. Recognising the weak position of licensing authorities, the strategy commits Wales to explore whether the Government of Wales Act can be used to strengthen their hands and to lobby for stronger powers, including the addition of public health to licensing act priorities.
While this is not the case in England and merely an ambition in Wales, in Scotland public health has already been added to the priorities licensing authorities can consider, one of several ways in which a law which came fully in to force in September 2009 aimed to expand the scope for community action. The Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 follows the same framework as in England and Wales, in particular divorcing licensees from any responsibility for what happens after their patrons leave. But it does gives greater scope for public participation in decisions on particular applications, which anyone can object to or seek to amend, not just immediate neighbours, and on overall licensing policy, the latter via a local advisory forum intended to ensure that policy has the backing and confidence of the local community.
The act also removes some of the limitations elsewhere in the UK on the freedom of action of licensing boards. In Scotland these will be able to mount their own reviews of licences and are actually required to proactively identify areas where new premises (or those of a certain kind) will not be allowed in the interests of public order, local amenity, or safeguarding health from the effects of increased drinking. Local authorities will employ special staff to investigate premises and report back to the boards. Irresponsible promotions of alcohol encouraging heavy drinking will be restricted. Boards can impose conditions including staffing policy, participation in good practice schemes and networks, and fairly detailed operational matters. All serving staff must be trained and personal licence holders are required to be retrained every five years.
As explained in guidance on the act, and unlike in the rest of the UK, density issues are a key and explicit feature of the Scottish legislation. Licensing boards are actually required to "have regard to the number and the capacity of licensed premises in localities" in making their decisions, and must must refuse an application for a new licence if this would result in overprovision, regardless of whether objections have been received. Boards are required to pro-actively identify overprovision and designate these localities as closed to new licences or licences for premises of a particular description. 'Overprovision' is not defined according to commercial criteria but according to evidence related to the act's health, crime and social objectives, and the areas so designated may include those not yet evidencing adverse effects but which there is reason to believe are close to this threshold. Importantly, the board can be quite discriminating, declaring actual or impending overprovision of certain types of establishments (for example, a concentration of off-sales in a residential area, or the density of 'vertical drinking' pubs in a town centre), but allowing others (such as licensed restaurants) to open which do not threaten the act's objectives.
The act also addressed some of the competitive practices which may be encouraged in (but not just in) high density areas. 'Bidding down' competition is explicitly curbed by requiring premises to maintain their current prices for at least three days. In respect especially of on-licence premises, further provisions ban other generic types of promotion which might encourage customers to buy or consume more alcohol than they intended, offer a fixed price for all you can drink, or supply free drinks linked to entry fees. These measures are to be extended in legislation backed by the Scottish government and currently before the Scottish Parliament. This would ban both on- and off-licences supplying drink free of charge or at a reduced price if the customer buys other drinks (eg, 'Buy one, get one free'), and limit on-licence promotional material to the alcohol sales area.
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