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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

May 9, 2012



An absurd objective – public health and the licensee

Unless I missed something the three alcohol licence applications refused by Edinburgh Licensing Board at the end of last month are the first examples of a local authority invoking Scotland’s fifth licensing objective – the obligation on licence holders to protect and improve public health.

The decisions were a result of the Scottish Government clarifying guidelines and enabling health boards to make direct objections to licences. This followed an evaluation of the implementation of the 2005 Scottish Licensing Act that concluded that the public health objective had been the least successful aspect of the legislation.

This was not surprising. How, exactly, are pubs and off-licences to be converted into public health practitioners?

Effectively, Scotland has solved this problem by handing it on to health boards, and in Edinburgh it nicely suits the local authority’s policy of clamping down on licence proliferation.

This is something like the new plan for England and Wales, where there are just the four reasonable and adequate licensing objectives that lie within the power of every good licensee – the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm.

While the government’s alcohol strategy doesn’t quite introduce a fifth licensing objective it does propose a “health-related objective for alcohol licensing related specifically

to cumulative impact”, which is how the fifth objective has just been used in Edinburgh.

In conjunction with the latest changes to legislation that will give health bodies the power to object to licences it makes for a potent way of restricting licensing.

Pub operators, of course, won’t be crying about a crackdown on new off-trade competition selling cheap booze. Indeed it was a publican who first attempted, and failed, to use Scottish legislation to review supermarket licences. But there’s no reason why the objective can’t be applied to the on-trade. And I’m not sure quite what defence pub operators could put up.

There is certainly a case for pubs providing a social, controlled environment that’s ‘healthy’ in a broader sense. But if the health lobby is going to roll out all sorts of dubious statistics about local alcohol-related hospital admissions and seek, through licence objections, to reduce the availability and consumption of drink in a particular area there might be no stopping it.

Yet the truth is that, beyond managing the behaviour of drinkers on their premises, expecting retailers of alcohol to take responsibility for public health is simply absurd.

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