An extensive review of the 2003 Licensing Act has identified a number of problems associated with the Act and its implementation, finding the interests of the licensed trade have benefited over those of local communities.
‘The Licensing Act (2003): its uses and abuses 10 years on [pdf]’ calls into question the impact of the Act from the perspective of reducing alcohol-related harms, though of course such issues are not easily separated from the benefits of the trade. See here for the summary report [pdf] and podcast.
The report was authored by the Institute of Alcohol Studies' Jon Foster and specialist licensing lawyer Leo Charalambides, based upon detailed interviews and workshops with over 70 licensing professionals.
Key issues include a lack of leverage over the off-trade which local authorities felt they had no real ability to affect. Indeed the report suggests the Act itself is in many ways solely framed around the on-trade, despite around two-thirds of alcohol now sold as off-sales.
However powers within the Act could be better utilised, as summarised by the IAS Alert article:
- Many councils do not use licensing to its full potential, firstly because they rely on non-expert in house legal advice, and secondly because many are scared of being taken to expensive legal appeals
- While health concerns can be addressed within licensing, these are more likely to be health issues related to social health and wellbeing (e.g. street drinking, domestic violence, deprivation)
- This may provide a proxy route to chronic long term public health issues, but in themselves these issues are too distant from the point of sale for licensing to have a significant impact, with price probably a more effective measure
- It is arguable that many social health and wellbeing issues could be addressed under the current licensing objectives, but the legally contested nature of licensing means this is unlikely to ever happen. Adding a health objective would allow for the more even application of the current licensing objectives.
The report’s recommendations include:
- The introduction of a health objective and an economic objective to the 2003 Licensing Act;
- Encouraging local authorities to use the Act in a more assertive manner in order to create safer and more sustainable night time economies;
- Introducing set opening hours for the off-trade, such as 10am till 10pm;
- Locally set licensing fees so that all councils can properly recover their costs from the licenced trade – at the moment many areas subsidize the licenced trade to considerable amounts.
Has the Licensing Act increased 'binge drinking'?
The introduction of the Licensing Act coincided with a period of declining consumption, which has fallen by up to 19% over the last decade. One theory suggests 'peak booze' was reached around the turn of the century, preceded by decades of rising consumption. Indeed a number of previous licensing changes had already facilitated a significant shift to the dominance of off-trade alcohol sales.
However new research from Lancaster University suggests that the Act is associated with an increase in binge drinking specifically amongst heavy drinkers; heavier drinkers were found to be 36% more likely to drink 12 or more units on their booziest nights. Whilst perhaps a small proportion of all drinkers, heavy nightlife drinkers will of course place a disproportionate strain on public services, an issue others bodies have highlighted.
Indeed the IAS report acknowledges that whilst overall the Act has not appeared to increase the overall amount of time or money spent on drinking out, it may have increased pre-loading by opening a wider drinking window. The Act has also appeared to have displaced alcohol-related disorder later into the early hours, rather than peaking soon after the historical 11pm pub closing time.
Back to pricing?
Whilst powers within the Act may be under-utilised, a wide range of other issues of various complexity are also addressed. Many licensing stakeholders recognised the problems associated with cheap off-sales, including industry stakeholders, even if opposing responses such as minimum unit pricing (MUP). Interestingly, the report identifies that locally enforceable conditions on price might be legally workable dependent on the upcoming Scottish ruling. Should MUP get the green light but England were not to follow suit nationally, local areas may find a novel pricing lever available to them.