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The myths of 24-hour drinking

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Mark Easton | 14:05 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Tony Blair's text pledge to students at the 2001 election - "cdnt give a xxxx 4 lst ordrs? vote labour on thrsdy 4 xtra time" - translated into one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented pieces of legislation ever passed. To many people, the Licensing Act 2003 was either about the madness of introducing 24-hour drinking or the futility of trying to create a continental cafe culture in England and Wales.

In reality, the law was almost entirely in tune with the instincts and ambitions of the current government: it sought to cut red tape, to move power from Whitehall to local people, to nudge the citizenry to behave responsibly. For all the political bluster at the time and since, in a White Paper today the coalition confirms it will not ditch the act but expand it.

A pint being pulled

A brief recap on how we got here... The story goes back to the 1980s when the collapse of traditional manufacturing led local authorities to look to the night-time economy to create jobs. Run-down urban centres would be regenerated into Continental-style piazzas filled with bars and restaurants, theatres and dance-halls.

But the dream of the cafe culture quickly evaporated. Drinks industry lawyers won a key legal battle that meant licences could not be refused simply because councils thought there were already enough bars in an area.

The result was that one type of business elbowed out almost all others - the mega-pub selling cheap alcohol to 18-24 year-olds, the so-called vertical drinking-dens turning over vast profits.

A decade later and the binge-drinking culture had turned town and city centres into no-go areas for large parts of the population. Government Ministers scratched their heads and wondered how they might reawaken that vision of a European-style night-time economy welcoming to all.

Local planners said: "Give us control of licensing." Ministers agreed.

Local police said: "Do away with the clang of the 11pm closing bell that creates nightly flash-points of disorder." Ministers agreed.

Local councillors said: "Give us more powers to close down problem pubs." Again Ministers agreed.

Three years later the government assessed the impact. Had the warnings of round-the-clock drunkenness been realised? Had café culture come to the British High Street?
No and no.

Only a few hundred bars and clubs had applied for the 24-hour licences and even these were rarely used. Levels of drinking and drink-related violence had remained stable or fallen slightly.

The problems seemed to be local council resistance to use the powers they had and police concern that extending opening times had simply pushed the booze-fuelled flash-point later into the night.

The Licensing Act 2003 has had terrible press but no-one is demanding a return to the old days. If anything, today's Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill simply hangs a few coalition horse brasses on the beams of the existing legislation: people living further away from a potential bar or club will be allowed to comment on licensing applications, councils can demand late-night venues pay for extra policing and there are a few minor tweaks to the rules.

As for cafe culture, let's give it time. Cultural change is more akin to a slow roast than a cup of instant.

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