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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

November 01, 2010



Class, binge drinking and the licensing review

It was The Sun what picked up on the story. “Pubs and clubs could be banned from opening in poor areas in a planned blitz on binge drinking,” it announced, in a new spin on the government’s licensing review.

By making public health a licensing objective, and by giving health authorities the ability to object to a licence, the proposals give the health lobby a lot of power in deciding whether licences are secured or lost, and the conditions imposed, such as opening hours.

The Home Office, where responsibility for licensing has now returned, wants to link licence applications with local health strategies. And some councils seem eager to seize the opportunity.

“Gateshead Council in Tyneside is already keen to make it more difficult to open a bar or an off-licence in areas with high unemployment,” The Sun reveals.

In fact, in Scotland, where policy is further down the temperance road, one council has already put a block on new licences. I checked, and West Dunbartonshire is one of the most deprived parts of the country, with levels of unemployment second only to Glasgow.

Not surprisingly, the county has already lost 17% of its licensed premises since 2007 - along with chunks of the rest of the economy you’d imagine.

Bizarrely, as these two stories broke, the government announced the appointment of of community pubs minister, Bob Neill.

“The local pub is a great British institution and the social heartbeat of life in our towns and villages, bringing people together and strengthening community relationships,” said Neill. “I am determined to protect the valuable role pubs play and help them to thrive.”

There are pubs, however, and there are pubs. There are also different kinds of community. Does Mr Neill have in mind the council estates of Dumbarton, where a pub is surely even more important as a hub of social cohesion than in the villages and shires that get all the attention from schemes such as Pub is the Hub? I suspect not.

Confusing the issue are the communities that have, according to The Sun’s Home Office source, “been over-run by licensed premises”. This could mean supermarkets, though it’s hardly likely the government wants to halt their expansion, or it’s town centre circuit pubs and bars, the usual culprits fingered for this thing called binge.

The high point of this problem is long past. Most bar operators now see the future as growing food sales. Unless the sherry trifle is particularly strong that shouldn’t cause much bother.

And I still maintain that the moral panic around binge drinking is a class issue. I remember someone from Brakspear’s, before the brewery in Henley closed down, telling me that the only time they had to close the gates was during the regatta, when hordes of young toffs, drunk on champers, used to rampage down the high street every night.

You never hear about that. Nor hear calls for drink to be banned from Henley Regatta. They won’t have that. It’d be worse than banning the boats. Yet when young working class people go out for a bit of fun on a Saturday night they are accused of terrorising some fictional ‘community’.

The Sun’s report lays bare the government’s approach to alcohol policy. If you live in a better-off part of the country you can have your pubs and bars. If you’re poor and jobless you can’t be trusted.

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