A review of the Government’s decision to liberalise the licensing regime in England and Wales is under way. But what is the experience on the ground of its impact? Herpreet Kaur Grewal investigates.

Herpreet Kaur Grewal

The transformation of England from a nation of binge drinkers into a European-style cafe society, it seems, has not yet materialised. After just two years, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced a review of the Government’s decision to allow pubs and clubs to extend their opening hours.

The new licensing laws came into force in November 2005, permitting some pubs and clubs to stay open later. At the time, culture secretary Tessa Jowell argued that not introducing the laws would “deny the public a more effective voice in the licensing decisions that affect them and mean the continuation of an unjust 90-year-old curfew that punishes the responsible majority”. It was argued that staggered closing times would reduce binge-drinking and alcohol-related violence.

Since then, critics have claimed that the reforms have in fact compounded the UK’s problems with alcohol, and Brown has pledged to review the licensing legislation, hinting at a possible U-turn. The review will investigate the impact that the Licensing Act 2003 has had on health and disorder, and is expected to report later this year.

Its authors will have a difficult time obtaining hard evidence on the issues: while there are plenty of opinions around, few of the protagonists can wield much in the way of hard data. Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales – which represents rank and file officers – says: “Since the changes, the problems associated with alcohol have been exacerbated, putting forces already stretched to capacity under yet more strain.” But he doesn’t provide figures to support his argument, and senior officers are more cautious: Chris Allison, a deputy assistant commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police and the lead on alcohol and licensing for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), says it’s “too early to tell” how the Act has influenced binge drinking and antisocial behaviour.

Tough enforcement

It’s a similar picture among local authorities. Audrey Lewis, cabinet member for community protection and licensing at Westminster City Council, the Tory-led borough that contains London’s greatest concentration of licensed premises, says: “The idea that granting longer licensing hours would reduce crime and disorder was always misconceived. Longer hours just make existing problems worse.” However, Lewis concedes that drink-related incidents in the borough have decreased, although she puts this down to “strong local policies and tough enforcement” rather than licensing reform.

On the other side of the debate, a Nottingham City Council spokesman says: “From anecdotal evidence, the law appears to be helping us to better manage some of the consequences of drinking.” And in Manchester, council deputy leader Jim Battle says that less well-known provisions of the Act, which strengthen the ability of councils and police to shut down problematic premises, have given them extra leverage. “The drop in crime over the last two years is due to the new powers that enable police to regulate off-licenses more closely, and control bars and clubs by working with them,” he says.

On the whole, though, councils report that it’s hard to ascertain the impact of reform – apparently because it is, in fact, very small. At Exeter City Council, a spokesman says that extended licensing hours have not “caused any major impact on crime and disorder levels, which remain low”: 400 licenses have been issued in the last two years, and there has been cause to review only five of them. At Bristol City Council, where there are 1,600 licensed premises, a spokesman says: “there’s no evidence that liberalisation has either caused significant problems or resolved issues. It hasn’t really had an impact.”

Rural areas report similar experiences: the Mendip and South Somerset Community Safety Partnership, which covers two council areas, discounts licensing reform as a reason for its falling crime figures. Even in North Norfolk, where the district council has a policy of issuing any requested license to which nobody objects (179 premises there hold 24-hour licenses), licensing team leader Tony Gent is relaxed. “There has been no major crime nor major public nuisance associated with licensed premises over the past 12 months,” he says. “We have surveyed the public and undertaken a review, and the result is that people have seen very little change.”

Increase in violent behaviour

At a national level, says a Home Office spokesman, the data collected so far “seems to confirm the Government’s belief, as set out when the Licensing Bill was first introduced, that the removal of fixed closing times would reduce incidents of crime and antisocial behaviour overall and spread them more evenly throughout the night”. But he admits that at the moment the information is in the form of “a data report, not analysis”: as a result, it is hard to attribute changes in levels of crime and disorder solely to the introduction of the Act.

Serious violent crimes carried out from 6pm to 6am fell by five per cent over the last year in England and Wales, he adds, though there were an extra 25 per cent such incidents between 3am and 6am. Dr Phil Hadfield, author of the analysis of the night-time economy Bar Wars, agrees that “between 3am and 6am there has been an increase in violent forms of behaviour”. And ACPO’s Allison adds that forces have “changed rostering procedures” to spread manpower more evenly. Meanwhile, new research by Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) shows that for the last five years – both before and since the 2003 Act – there have been consistent rises in the number of people admitted as emergency cases to hospital as a direct result of drinking.

All in all, data is thin on the ground in the debate over licensing, while political colour seems a far more powerful determinant of people’s opinions than any scientific evidence. Indeed, Brown’s decision to announce a review of licensing reform wasn’t based on new evidence, but on his desire to forge his own political path and woo swing voters. From our research, licensing reform has not significantly affected the magnitude of the UK’s problems with alcohol, although it may have adjusted their distribution. This quiet non-story, however, may not be heard in the heated debates that will shape our future laws on alcohol licensing.

Perhaps, as Allison points out, the debate about whether or not longer opening hours lead to a rise or fall in crime and bad behaviour is a red herring: in order to effect longer-term change, the Government needs to do something about our drinking culture. Allison argues that it should now take steps to ensure that town centres offer a more diverse range of evening activities, moving away from a “high volume of vertical drinkers”. Hadfield adds: “There need to be more effective ways of managing the urban environment. And we need other things in place too, such as alternative and extra transport for when people pour out of the pubs.”

But while such sensible solutions might tackle the problems caused by alcohol abuse, they don’t carry the political weight of a change in the laws controlling alcohol consumption. Few would argue that our drinking culture can be altered with a simple flick of a legislative wand – but perhaps that’s not the point of Brown’s review. For while problem drinkers might take a passing interest in his take on licensing reform, other groups will be watching more closely – not least those crucial swing voters.

– The LJMU research, Local Alcohol Profiles for England, is available via www.regen.net/doc


National Pubwatch is a voluntary body set up to create a safe and responsible social drinking environment and reduce alcohol-related crime. It provides local pubwatch schemes with support and advice.

1. Gather support from licensees in your area, as well as the police and the local authority. If there’s widespread support for a pubwatch scheme, visit a scheme in another area. Identify and test the potential benefits, then form a committee. The committee can then look for start- up grant money to set up a scheme. For some schemes this has come from local authority funding or the local Chamber of Commerce.

2. The committee can decide on a course of action against individuals who cause or threaten damage, disorder or violence, use or deal in drugs within premises, or create a general nuisance. This could include refusing to serve individuals who are known to have previously caused such problems in all premises that are part of the pubwatch scheme.

3. Most schemes use telephones, pagers or radios to pass on information about people refused entry or ejected for causing trouble. In this way the trouble-maker is excluded and not allowed to go from pub to pub. If this includes a radio system, each publican needs to apply for a radio license. These radio systems are sometimes linked into the police or a town’s CCTV control room.

4. People who cause a nuisance are usually issued with a banning orders. If this order is breached, the publican logs it by giving a breach notice. This could lead to a Magistrate’s Court issuing an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (asbo) if behaviour escalates. But Derek Yeomans, who runs the Pubwatch scheme in South Somerset, says that receiving a banning order is usually sufficient, as it “has a sobering effect”.

5. The scheme is maintained through a membership fee once the start-up grant has finished. The scheme needs to be evaluated and monitored from an early stage to prove its contribution to dealing with local issues.

– Visit www.nationalpubwatch.org.uk.