Theresa May's sense and nonsense

By The PMA Team

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Home secretary theresa Licensing reform Drinking culture Alcoholic beverage

Charity: hoping for sensible licensing reform
Charity: hoping for sensible licensing reform
With licensing reform on the cards, the trade will be hoping that Home Secretary Theresa May shows a sense of perspective, says The PMA Team.

The Licensing Act 2003 was, for many observers, not a deregulation of alcohol licensing, but a re-regulation. Pubs had originally wanted a few extra hours of trading at weekends.

This sensible piece of licensing law relaxation was delivered in a broader package that brought one huge change — the politicisation of licensing with local authorities becoming the key licensing body.

Last week's speech by Home Secretary Theresa May, promising licensing reform, is the latest chapter in this process. The pub trade and alcohol licensing is a football to be kicked back and forth by politicians. The trade is in a weak position because there is no denying there are badly-run pubs and promotions out there that contribute to problems in town and city centres.

But last week's speech by the Home Secretary was full of implicit injustices at the expense of the pub sector. "I said at the time (of licensing reform) that many people's lives were going to be made a misery, especially those living near pubs."

Her rhetorical focus was on the high-street circuit with hardly a mention of the supermarkets' contribution to pre-loading. "Five years on (from licensing reform), every Friday and Saturday night our police fight an on-going battle against booze-fuelled crime and disorder." The truth, of course, is that people in this country like to drink quickly and occasionally to excess.

The problem with alcohol in the UK is cultural. Nevertheless, the past half-decade has seen progress made in entirely the right direction. The pub trade, the home of supervised drinking, has led the way in improving standards of alcohol retailing in partnership with police, local authorities and others. The trade itself in town and city centres is evolving away from a reliance on Friday and Saturday evenings to a broader integrated food-and-drink offer.

It's just as well because the weekend nights are in steep decline — it's one reason why nightclub company Luminar's like-for-like sales are down by 20% in a year. Patterns of socialising and drinking are changing. The young people I know are ignoring the pub circuit at weekends or get bored by it quickly; they are starting to think a night out should be in mixed-sex groups and involve a meal. Figures from CGA show the Friday night out is an endangered species, with a near-doubling of the number of young people (to 70%) who only go out once a week since 2005.

Some of May's suggestions are hard to argue with. By all means ban below-cost sales of alcohol and close down shops and pubs that persist in selling booze to the underage. But it's important that a sense of perspective is maintained. For example, the plan to allow local authorities to charge more for late-night licences risks reversing the proliferation of late-night choice in the past five years — an important factor in avoiding the creation of trouble hot spots.

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