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24-hour party people?

As The Daily Mail braces itself for the biggest outbreak of drunken disorder since the Viking invasions, the majority of licence holders are seeking two-hour extensions for a more civilized drinking culture, says Patrick Schmitt

WHILE changes to the licensing laws in England and Wales, announced officially in early February and due to take effect in November, have given rise to various emotions, it is important to focus on what the implications are for on-premise outlets and, in particular, on whether they can benefit.

Will 24-hour licensing result in 24-hour drinking, as some in the press seem to suggest? Will it serve to fuel alcohol-related problems rather than reduce them? Aside from the increased fees associated with the new act, and the potential problems of having control of granting and extending licences removed from the magistrates courts and placed in the hands of local authorities, the key issue has been increased flexibility when it comes to licensing hours.

This is something most in the trade welcome, but the attention-grabbing idea of 24-hour drinking is far from the reality.  "We agree with the liberalisation of licensing laws, but we never said 24 hours, all we said is can we maybe have a couple more hours," says a spokesman for J D Wetherspoon.  

In fact, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) undertook a survey of over 31,000 pubs and found that 58% were seeking to apply for extensions, but only for one or two hours extra on Friday and Saturday evenings, depending on trade.

"There is no market opportunity in 24-hour opening, but there is a market opportunity in some properties opening till midnight on a Friday or Saturday," stresses Simon Ward, public affairs director for Mitchells & Butlers.

And as John McNamara, chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) says, "I recently talked to a licensee in the northwest who’s situated on the outside of a fairly large town, and he’s anticipating he’ll go for an extra couple of hours on a Friday or Saturday night, because by doing that he’ll retain some customers who would have otherwise left at 11.20 and gone into toNo wn for a later drink."

So certainly there are financial incentives, and as the J D Wetherspoon’s spokesman says, "We’re hoping extra hours will bring in more income – we’re a commercial company and we’re not looking to open extra hours just for the sake of it."

Reclaiming the streets

But what about the issue of extended licences on alcohol-fuelled antics? "By eliminating a set time for closing for pubs and nightclubs," begins the BBPA’s communications manager, Christine Milburn, "people will come into the street in a drip-feed approach, which would allow the local transport infrastructure etc to cope.

By changing licensing laws we now provide a range of venues people can go to after 11pm, rather than just nightclubs which traditionally house younger people." 

This means a wider  spread of age groups can stay out late, "creating a different mix of people in town centres than what we’ve previously seen".

However, McNamara is sceptical that changes in licensing laws alone will have a significant effect on public drunkenness.  "An act of parliament allowing you to stagger hours might help, but there’s more to it, and it will only start to work when licensees work closely with other agencies," he says, meaning neighbouring outlets, the local authority, the local pub watch, and the BII.

It’s good to talk

"On the Isle of Man, they’ve had deregulated hours since 2001," he continues, "and the chief constable published their crime figures for last year.

From 2001 their night-time crime and disorder has gone down, and the only reason it has is because there is a local licensing forum with the police, the industry and the local authority once a month, and sometimes the meetings are difficult, but at least they get the issues out in the open. They talk about the problem venues.

And our view has always been if a venue is causing a problem, use your powers and close them down."  At which point it’s worth noting that the new licensing act also gives a police superintendent, and above, the power to close for 24 hours those premises consistently causing disturbance.

But the government still feels even these increased powers aren’t enough to root out those places which cause much of the disorder in city centres. And hence a plan, which is outside the remit of the new licensing act, but currently being discussed, to possibly demarcate Alcohol Disorder Zones.

These would be areas agreed between police and the local authority within which premises,  f they fail to implement strategies to reduce alcohol-fuelled disorder within a minimum of eight weeks, will have to contribute towards policing and other local costs.

Merely the suggestion has provoked uproar.  The BBPA in particular stresses that such an approach will punish many for the irresponsible actions of the few. 

"We know, for example, in Nottingham city centre the chief constable gave evidence to parliament just before Christmas and he’s identified that out of 350 venues 10 of them were causing 40% of problems. Our view is you tackle those 10."

Furthermore, as McNamara points out, "The industry already contributes £22 billion worth of taxation revenue, and the UK policing costs are about £10.5bn."  He does not, however, advocate doing nothing when it comes to the costs of alcohol-related crime and disturbances.

"Things we are looking at closely are Business Improvement Districts, and there are 22 pilot schemes across the country. These are democratic – if 51% of business in an area votes for the scheme, each one will contribute 0.5% or 1% of their rateable value (so for a small business an extra £250).

This money can be used locally for CCTV or extra staff training or litter collection, or street wardens to improve the general business area.  Three pilot sites have been approved, of which Richmond was the first one, and they’ve got a float of £3m for four years which will make a massive difference for Richmond.

National policies don’t work; this is street-corner strategy stuff – on the street corners of this country we’ve got to get local trainers and licensees working together."

No quick fixes

Not only is some 44% of violent crime apparently fuelled by alcohol, some 35% of attendances at hospital accident and emergency departments are drink-related, 70% of which occur between midnight and 5am.

One in five violent incidents take place around pubs and clubs and crime and disorder costs an estimated £7.3bn every year. What is needed more than anything else is a change in attitude, and as Mitchells & Butlers’ Ward says, "The culture of drunkenness is an issue, you can’t shove it under the carpet, but characterising it as The Daily Mail does as a function of licensing hours is trite."

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