Thursday, August 16, 2007

Licensing in Merton and should the drinking age be extended to over 21?

The issue of licensing has been an area that I've been involved with within Merton Council as Chair of Licensing between 2003 and 2006 and I oversaw as Chair the transition of the licensing regime from the Magistrates to the Council. Over that time I've also chaired countless licensing hearings and have gained a good grasp of residents concern along with a variety of licensing issues that have emerged.

In Merton, the previous Labour administration implemented a Licensing policy which included a cumulative impact zone in Wimbledon Village and Town Centre which recognised the large number of premises in the area and created a presumption against new licensed premises and extension of hours with licensees have to prove that they'll not add to the cumulative impact when applying for extra hours in this area. This was introduced after listening closely to residents and police about issues in these areas. Indeed our Licensing policy is one of the strictest in London and was opposed by the Licensing business, since the introduction we've only lost one appeal. The revised policy which is currently out for consultation retains many key parts of that policy.

Likewise the previous Labour administration at Merton Council introduced a Controlled Drinking Zone in Wimbledon to stop street drinking in the town centre. I actually believe street drinking is anti-social and should be stopped.

Some may believe we were killjoys but I believe it was right to have adopted these policies, each application is still considered on its merits and we have granted extensions where we believe that it would not add to the cumulative impact. Listening to residents and the police is essential in determining licensing applications. In terms of 24 hour licensing we've only granted one application in the whole of Merton and that has many restrictions including a police veto, 24 hour drinking can be applied for but hardly any premises have and this is the same in Merton and many other boroughs. What it allowed was flexibility in applying for licensing hours, the determination ultimately rests with the Licensing authority in determining any applications.

In recent days the Chief Constable of Cheshire Peter Fahy has called for the drinking age to be raised to 21. I believe this to be wrong and would be a draconian step to take. Although many premises have an over 21 policy, a universal 21 policy would go against the age of majority of 18 and would do nothing to reduce drinking amongst this age group who would find other ways of securing drink. Anti-social behaviour caused by drinking also involves many past this age group and indeed includes many considerably older then 21. In fact this could even be a retrograde step, at least in pubs some control does exist on excessive drinking, where would the 18-21 group go? probably to homes and drink excessively more on alcohol purchased from supermarkets, off licenses or brought from France, being in this age group they would no doubt find ways of getting alcohol.

In terms of violence this has been used as an argument for raising the age, yes drink does has an effect but I believe the greatest threat we face at the moment in London is from knives and guns which have been the prime cause of many murders in the past year and not alcohol though in some cases it has played a part. However many alcohol fuelled murders have been committed by people older then this age group.

Over the past few years we've seen the Labour Government introduce tougher measures for anti-social behaviour, likewise under the new Licensing Act it is not easier to shut premises down which are causing problems or selling alcohol to underage people. Clearly in this country many of the young do enjoy a drink and binge drinking has become a problem. A need does exist from the premises and supermarkets who in many instances irresponsible promotions can help fuel problems in a local area, whilst I believe a voluntary approach has had some success clearly further measures may be needed in the future on some of the offers which do encourage excessive drinking. Despite protests that drink prices are too low in pubs, I think raising them higher is not the best way forward and would result in more people using supermarkets or going to France where drink is considerably cheaper. The main reason that alcohol excise duties have not risen much in recent years has been due to the amount being purchased from abroad especially France where it is considerably cheaper.

The whole issue does need to be kept under review clearly some people are irresponsible and it is right that anti-social behaviour caused through drunkenness is punished. I also believe more information should be made available to the young about the dangers of excessive drinking. We should not however single out 18-21 age group as not being allowed to purchase alcohol which I believe would do little to cut alcohol consumption in that age group and could actually make the problem worse.


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