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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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         The politics of drinking

December 3, 2010



Café culture and the government assault on progress

The licensing reforms contained in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill are much as feared, and I won’t repeat my whole critique.

There is a small let-off in that a fifth licensing objective that would, technically, mean pubs have a responsibility to promote public health is not included. It’s still in the Scottish law, though, and health bodies will become ‘responsible authorities’ with the power to object to new licences and opening hours.

And with licensing authorities also becoming responsible authorities, effectively making them prosecutor and jury, and being obliged to accept, as a default position, any recommendations the police might make, you have a piece of legislation that will make it much tougher for pubs to operate.

There is also the late-night levy, which councils can impose on any pubs and bars that want to stay open past midnight.

Behind all this is the continuing moral panic around ‘binge drinking’ and the Coalition’s view that, in the words of minister for crime prevention James Brokenshire:

“The introduction of 24-hour licensing promised a continental-style 'café-culture' which has not materialised – instead we see drunkenness, violence and anti-social behaviour and too many of our town and city centres are now considered ‘no go’ areas.”

As the BBC’s Mark Easton has pointed out the idea that legislation can change a nation’s drinking culture overnight, or even in a few years, is absurd, and no grounds to reject the 2003 Licensing Act. The current regime may not be perfect but you can’t judge it on the same terms as a magic spell.

Yet since the Act came into force – only at the end of 2005 - there are distinct signs that pub culture has begun to change, to loosen up in a continental-style way.

Flexible hours, a more accurate term than ‘24-hour licensing’ considering the tiny number of on-trade premises that have such a thing, have prompted many pub operators to reassess when they open and what and who they open for.

So we have pubs staying closed during the day and opening only in the evening, perhaps till the early hours, and others that will open late morning and think nothing of closing the doors at 10pm.

There are also growing numbers of pubs testing the breakfast opportunity and, more successfully, stealing the mid-morning coffee-and-cake trade from the coffee houses.

It’s early days, but it’s happening.

Meanwhile, there is also evidence that town and city centres are becoming safer. Even Alcohol Concern, in a recent report, has to admit that alcohol-related violence has declined, though not as much as it would like.

This is partly another positive effect of flexible licensing in that people aren’t all spilling out onto the street at the same time and fighting each other for cabs and kebabs. Although it has required more police time, which they aren’t too happy about.

But the main factor has been the partnerships in growing numbers of towns and cities between local authorities, police, bar operators and door security firms to properly manage the undoubted challenges of the night-time economy. (For instance, in Brighton.)

There is now debate about how to take this further, through consciously and collectively planning a mixed cultural experience for urban centres that isn’t just based on booze.

These positive developments are threatened not just by toughening up on licensing and deterring pub and bar operators from creating new and exciting experiences for their customers but by the whole thrust of government policy.

Ironically, or should that be stupidly, the ConDems are tossing onto the bonfire of the quangos the Security Industry Authority, which has, however inefficiently, succeeded in professionalising bouncers. There are plans by industry to step into the gap, but it’s worrying.

And there is also, of course, cutting resources to local authorities, some of which are used to make night-time economy partnerships work.

If we lose the gains we have made and alcohol-related problems start increasing again, the government will have only itself to blame.

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