Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Scotland's licensing system needs clearer direction

New report shows action needed to ensure licensing works more effectively to protect people and communities from alcohol-related harm.

Eight years since the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 came fully into force, Taking Stock: Views and experiences of alcohol licensing in Scotland in 2016/17 reports on progress within the licensing system and makes recommendations for improvement. 

The report has been informed by the views of those involved in the licensing system who attended a series of regional events, held by Alcohol Focus Scotland in late 2016. The main findings that emerged from these discussions were:

  • The system is too complex and it is difficult for local people to get involved in shaping licensing policy and decision-making.
  • There are disagreements about the role and purpose of alcohol licensing, particularly between those working in licensing and those working in public health.
  • Licensing hearings can be intimidating for people who aren’t legal experts and public information about licensing is inaccessible.
  • Local licensing forums, the main mechanism for public engagement, aren’t functioning effectively so there is a lack of proper scrutiny of policy and decision-making.

Newly constituted licensing boards across the country have started to gather information on alcohol harm to inform their local licensing policies, due to be published by November 2018, which will guide their decision-making for up to 5 years.  As the Scottish Government develops its refreshed alcohol strategy, it must turn its attention to addressing the widespread availability of alcohol and provide greater direction and support to boards.

With the number of licences granted across Scotland continuing to increase, Alcohol Focus Scotland is calling on Scottish Government to provide stronger national direction to ensure this is brought under control. Further recomendations to Scottish Government include:

  • Clarify the role and purpose of the licensing system
  • Update national guidance to local licensing boards
  • Commission an in-depth review of the functioning of local licensing forums

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said:

“Licensing is devolved to local boards so that decisions can better meet the needs of local communities.  Unfortunately, too often the people and communities affected by licensing decisions are unable to voice their opinions because of the complexity of the system.

“Despite one million Scots drinking too much, and the harm this causes to individuals, families and communities, we have seen an increase in the number of licensed premises over the last six years.  It seems that every corner shop now sells alcohol, as well many petrol stations, sandwich bars and coffee shops.  We need a clearer expectation from Scottish Government of how licensing can and should contribute to reducing consumption and harm in communities across Scotland.  And we need greater consistency, transparency and accountability from local licensing boards on how they are delivering on this.

"The Scottish Government’s alcohol strategy refresh and licensing boards’ preparation of their licensing policy statements provide a real opportunity to address some of the issues raised in this report and ensure our licensing system is fit for the future.”

Alan Murray, Senior Community Nurse Addictions at NHS Lothian said:

“As the recent chair of a local licensing forum I have witnessed first-hand the obstacles that local licensing boards face in developing a licensing policy that effectively addresses the overconsumption of alcohol in our communities.

"All of our authorities tasked with addressing this pressing public health concern should take note of this detailed work by Alcohol Focus Scotland and work together to develop an effective strategy to tackle this important public health issue.”

Vered Hopkins, Lead Officer at Dundee City Alcohol & Drug Partnership said:

“Over the past four years progress has been made in Dundee to develop a well-informed and evidence-based overprovision policy. The policy provided the City’s Licensing Board with the evidence and approach it needed to either turn applications down or place additional conditions on licences.

“However, it was acknowledged that it is not possible to follow the advice of the overprovision policy in every case, and that discussions and decisions regarding applications for licences are complex. The original overprovision policy has now run its course and the Dundee Licensing Board are currently considering adopting a new overprovision policy.

“To further support the Licensing Board and to ensure a reduction of alcohol-related harm in Dundee, it is our intention to increase the involvement of local individuals and communities in discussions about specific applications for licences”.