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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
February 12, 2010



Alcohol-related disorder is falling. Not that anyone’s going to tell you

Good management of the night-time economy in towns and cities across Britain over the last couple of years has reduced crime on drinking circuits by between 18% and 45%. Heard that before? Probably not. The mainstream media isn’t terribly interested in positive stories, and the alcohol problem industry can be breathtakingly cynical when it comes to successful harm reduction strategies that don’t actually result in people drinking less.

“There is a danger that we’ll become experts at managing high-risk drinking,” said Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern when he heard the good news at a ‘Drinking Spaces and Places’ seminar on Wednesday organised by the Royal Geographical Society. He was echoing academic Mark Bellis, who commented at November’s National Alcohol Conference that “England has become an international expert on creating safe environments for intoxication”.

A substantial reduction in alcohol-related crime and violence is somehow twisted around into a Bad Thing. Or ignored.

Alistair Turnham, the speaker, was faintly bemused by the lack of enthusiasm for success. He is a consultant who has been helping various town centre partnerships to become ‘progressive night-time economies’.

“Alcohol-related disorder is falling, and our city centres are more diverse than they have ever been,” he said, pointing to Brighton, Nottingham and Romford as places which have turned things around.

It isn’t just a matter of policing. Nottingham, once notorious, has developed a sophisticated understanding of who’s coming into the centre and made efforts to diversify by marketing to new communities.

Further down the line, better town planning can reverse the anarchic mushrooming of vertical drinking establishments in the 1990s, encouraged by deregulation under the last Tory government.

It was unusual to find geographers organising a conference on pubs, but it makes sense. And by coming at it from a fresh direction it opened up the debate, and not only around the night-time economy.

The concept of ‘binge-drinking’ was criticised as was, more controversially, the idea of using alcohol units to control drinking.

Geographer James Kneale made a plea for more emphasis on understanding why people drink, as opposed to the almost exclusive concentration on the supply side, and some interesting research among ordinary drinkers in Stoke and Cumbria began to provide answers.

It was curious, at a conference about pubs, that there was no one to speak from the pub industry. But this time it didn’t matter as much as you might think. In fact, the omission meant we avoided having to witness another playground fight between the industry and New Temperance where no blows are landed and neither side really tackles the opposing argument.

Instead, we got a balanced, rational discussion. And doesn’t that make a nice change.

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