An evolution in drinking?

Related tags Licensing reform Drinking culture Alcoholism

The Government believes licensing reform will reduce drunken disorder and help us become more Continental in our approach to alcohol. But will it...

The Government believes licensing reform will reduce drunken disorder and help us become more Continental in our approach to alcohol. But will it really be so easy to change the drinking habits of a nation? Claire Hu investigates Having one too many beers in Elizabethan times could result in offenders being forced to wear a "drunkard's cloak", a heavy barrel with holes for arms and head, while being paraded through the streets. Other punishments for over-indulgence included flogging or six hours in the stocks. These days, Government likes to think it takes a more enlightened view of drinking, but tackling binge drinking and accompanying street disorder is still one of its main crime and disorder priorities. Licensing reform in England and Wales, which was this week given Royal Assent, is one of the main weapons Labour believes it can use to transform the more unpleasant aspects of British drinking culture. Ministers believe that by relaxing pub opening hours, we will become like our Continental neighbours and adopt a more relaxed attitude to drinking. The end of fixed hours will stop the rush to down as many pints as possible before 11pm chucking-out time, and reduce the size of crowds spilling out on to the streets at one time ­ or so the theory goes. "Flexible opening hours will help minimise public disorder and binge drinking caused by fixed closing times, encouraging a more civilised culture in pubs, bars and restaurants and finally treating men and women like grown-ups," said former licensing minister Kim Howells, at the launch of the Licensing Bill last year. However, serious doubts have been raised among experts about just how easy it will be to change the British approach to boozing. While many in the trade are confident licensing reform will mean less trouble on the streets, cynics fear the Government is rushing to fulfil an election promise without adequate research into the potential effects of longer opening hours. They warn it could be the pub trade that ends up paying if the biggest experiment in licensing in a century goes horribly wrong, and increases rather than decreases drunken disorder. Philip Hadfield, research fellow at the Crime and Social Order Unit of Durham University, contributed to a partly Government-funded study entitled "Bouncers", looking at disorder in the night-time economy. The research concluded that alcohol-related disorder was on the rise, and blamed this partly on high-street pubs gearing their offering at young people and volume drinking, as well as irresponsible price discounting. A high compression of bars and young people inspires heavy drinking, says Hadfield. "In terms of marketing, the high-street chain in the '90s was geared very much towards youth and vertical drinking. The market was in many ways getting narrower." Hadfield does not believe extended hours on their own will reduce binge drinking and street disorder. He points to Bath, Liverpool and the Newcastle Crossquays areas, where an increase in special hours certificates led to residents complaining of more low-level crime, such as vandalism, litter and noise, and an extension of "peaks of disorder" later into the night. Instead, licensing reform needs to be made part and parcel of a whole range of changes, from towns and cities improving their night-time infrastructure to pubs appealing to a wider age range, Hadfield believes. Take an evening stroll in the centre of Barcelona, for example, and you will see little old ladies as well as trendy young clubbers enjoying a night out. This better age mix, as well as better late-night transport, weather and street lighting all contribute to a very different approach to alcohol on the Continent. "If our attitude to alcohol changes, it will be over a long period of time," says Hadfield. "Reform has to be linked to other things such as better public transport late at night. If you want families to go out and produce a more Continental going-out experience, they need to feel safe. If everything else is equal, the fear is that, by extending hours, you are just spreading the trouble out. It may not be the revolution people are expecting, but the main problem with licensing reform is a lack of evidence on which to base predictions. It's a big step in the dark." England and Wales can look to Scotland and Ireland to assess the potential effects of liberalised licensing on drinking habits. But the picture is far from clear. While Scotland is generally positive about the impact of later pub openings, Ireland is in the process of enforcing sweeping new measures to reverse the liberalisation of the 1990s, amid concerns over a rise in alcoholism and street fights. Closing times are to be brought forward, under 21s will be required to carry ID, and under-18s will not be allowed in bars after 8pm. The Irish Government believes later closing times have not resulted in a more civilised approach to drinking ­ rather the opposite, with alcohol consumption up 50% in the last decade, one in five 12 to 14-year-olds now regular drinkers and a rise in alcohol-fuelled disorder. Irish President Mary McAleese recently called her fellow countrymen's attitude to drink "unhealthy" and "sinister". In Scotland, however, supporters of more liberal drinking hours point to Edinburgh as the best example of how well they can work. The Scottish liberalisation process began in 1976 with the Clayson Report, while the Nicholson Committee will soon be publishing its long-awaited review of licensing laws. Ian Payne, chief executive of Laurel Pub Company, observes: "Edinburgh is a great place to go out late at night. It feels safe, and almost like you could be sitting in a Continental city." He believes fixed opening hours play a major role in drunken disorder. "I think there is a problem with terminal hours in England. In towns where pubs shut at 11pm, you have got a large outpouring of people on to the streets at one time and this is not very desirable." While later hours will not cause people to spend more on drink, he believes they will instead go out later, and the pub trade needs to meet this new challenge. "We have always encouraged our licensees to run respectable businesses. It has never been in anyone's interest to run a pub full of drunkards. I think increased hours will gradually get people to change their drinking habits, and there will be less drunkenness." There are concerns that under new licensing laws, the pub trade will be punished for the worst excesses of binge drinking instead of adequate research being carried out into the whole culture of over-indulgence and how it can be changed. In other words, the effect rather than the cause will be addressed. The Act gives police, councils and residents increased powers to deal with anti-social behaviour arising from pubs. These powers include: l Residents being able to ask for a pub's licence to be reviewed at any time l Police being given the right to temporarily close venues for up to 24 hours in the interests of public safety and the right to apply to magistrates to extend the closure l Councils and police being given authority to suspend licences for up to three months and insert conditions banning price promotions. Groups such as the Civic Trust are calling for the "polluter pays" principle to be applied and, under some proposals, pub operators could end up forking out for late-night policing and extra street cleaning. Chief Inspector Peter Keown, the country's leading police representative on licensing reform, is critical of ministers for failing to ensure that the Department of Health completed the long-awaited alcohol-harm-reduction strategy before the drafting of new licensing laws. "Things should have happened the other way round ­ there should have been an alcohol strategy and then regulation following from that," he says. "I think a lot more research should have been done into our drinking culture before enforcing new regulation ­ it's now a bit of a leap of faith." Many police forces are concerned that extended hours will merely push drunken disorder later into the night, and they will not have the resources to deal with it, says

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