England’s 2004 national alcohol strategy1 highlighted crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour related to underage drinking and drinking in urban centres at night, but made no clear call for coordinated community programmes. The 2003 Licensing Act covering England and Wales prioritised crime and disorder, public safety, public nuisance, and the protection of children, but also aimed to "give business greater freedom and flexibility [and] greater choice for consumers."2 Licensing boards have little scope for reviewing, refusing or amending licences. New applications can be refused if the area is considered to suffer exceptional crime or disorder due to a high concentration of premises, but existing licences cannot be rescinded on these grounds. If these are experienced outside 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. The scope for public involvement is highly limited.
Previous legislation had legalised test purchases by underage children in England and Wales, placed the onus on licensees to take all reasonable steps to establish the age of a customer who might be under 18, extended responsibility for preventing underage sales to any employee who sells or allows a sale to happen, and made it an offence for an adult to buy alcohol on behalf of someone under 18. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 enabled police and/or trading standards officers to ban the sale of alcohol for up to 48 hours at premises which persistently sell alcohol to under-18s, and police can apply for a fast-track review of the licences of premises associated with serious crime or disorder.
Possibly more scope for public involvement is provided for in an action plan for implementing the English alcohol strategy3 which 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 2008 in England, up to £30,000 is available for each partnership to fund activity to curb alcohol-related crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour.4 Also, health trusts must include alcohol in their needs assessments. Action by these authorities may be motivated by some of the indicators 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 strategy5 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. Echoing the environmentalists’ case, 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 plan6 commits 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 possibly mandating the code of conduct for the alcohol industry and adding public health to licensing act priorities.
While this is not the case in England and 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 coming fully in to force in September 2009 will expand the scope for community action.7 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.8
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.
Scotland’s proposed national alcohol strategy9 encourages boards and police to take a tough line on both underage sales (direct or via an adult) and serving drunk patrons. It highlights a pilot community coordination project planned for Fife whose elements are typical of the Holder model of environmental action and encourages similar approaches across the country.
1 Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Alcohol harm reduction strategy for England. Cabinet Office, 2004.
2 Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Guidance issued under section 182 of the Licensing Act 2003 and guidance to Police Officers on the Operation of Closure Powers in Part 8 of the Licensing Act 2003.
3 Department of Health [etc]. Safe. Sensible. Social. The next steps in the national alcohol strategy. HM Government, 2007.
4 Alcohol related partnership activity funding.
5 Welsh Assembly Government. Working together to reduce harm: the substance misuse strategy for Wales 2008-2018. Welsh Assembly Government, 2008.
6 Welsh Assembly Government. Working together to reduce harm: the substance misuse strategy three-year implementation plan 2008-11. Welsh Assembly Government, 2008.
7 Scottish Executive. Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 – section 142 – guidance for licensing boards. Scottish Executive, 4 April 2007.
8 Scottish Government. Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005.
9 Scottish Government. Changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol: a discussion paper on our strategic approach. Scottish Government, 2008.
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