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Evaluating the effect of individual alcohol licensing decisions on local health and crime

Licensing authority control of alcohol availability can have a positive impact on health and crime in a local vicinity

Frank de Vocht

13 May 2020

What did we investigate and why is it important?

The main way that local authorities in England can reduce the negative impact of alcohol in their area is through the licensing system. Licensing legislation requires that all decisions are informed by evidence relating to the immediate local area or the specific outlets involve. Yet most published or usable data are available only for larger areas and thus cannot inform specific decisions, such as whether to revoke licenses or reduce trading hours.

This study aimed to assess a methodology for evaluating licensing decisions at the small area level for three English case studies so that, if successful, it could be used as evidence in licensing hearings. It was led by the University of Bristol, and was a collaboration with partners in the NIHR School for Public Health Research* (Universities of Sheffield, Newcastle, Cambridge, and UCL), Public Health England, and the alcohol licensing and public health practitioners from Bristol, Medway and Leeds.

What did we do?

Three case studies from different regions in England were selected and developed together with local licensing officers, public health teams involved in local alcohol policy and academic colleagues. These were:

  1. The closure of a large town centre pub and club with a nightclub in the basement following a licensing committee review. Following concerns about the amount of crime, anti-social behaviour and overt drunkenness at the premises over a period of months, during which the police tried to work with the license holder, the police decided to review the premises licence. The Director of Public Health provided evidence of ambulance call outs and the relationship between alcohol consumption and accidents, which was considered relevant as the premises is right on the river front. The designated premises supervisor (DPS) was removed and conditions placed on the licence. In effect the nightclub was closed in 2013.
  2. The closure of a co-located restaurant and nightclub following review. Two premises co-located in the same street were closed down following a licence review brought by the police on the grounds of crime and disorder ceased trading in 2016.
  3. The introduction of new local licensing guidance and increased inspections in a city centre. Following a change in central government regulations, local licensing authorities were permitted in 2012 to developed guidance specific to the local area. By enabling the local communities team to develop a relationship with local business, the new guidance in the case study area was intended to improve both the quality of licensing applications and local rates of alcohol-related crime. The developed guidance was in place for a period of about 12 months in 2013/14, during which there was active engagement by local Public Health teams. However, in 2013, local government was subjected to austerity measures put in place by the government, which led to restructuring and the loss of certain projects and teams. 

We were interested in the potential impact of these events on reported numbers of calls for service from police records, alcohol-related hospital admissions, and ambulance call-outs to the immediate area (range 1,000 – 15,000 residents). To evaluate the impact of the licensing decisions we used a novel statistical framework for each case study to create a counterfactual local area (a ‘doppelganger’) by combining the data from several other and comparable local areas from the same urban areas. These counterfactuals allowed us to compare ‘what would have happened had the event not happened’ to what really happened in the local area, and the difference between the two can be considered as the effect of the intervention.

What did the study find?

After running the statistical models, we found that the closure of the nightclub (case study 1) had resulted in a temporary, 4-month, reduction in anti-social behaviour of about 60 incidents averted, but a return to 'normal' afterwards. Closure of the restaurant and nightclub (case study 2) did not result in any measurable changes in outcomes in the 12 months after closure. The new licensing guidance (case study 3) led to small reductions in drunk and disorderly behaviour (9 of a predicted 21 events averted), and the unplanned end of the LLG coincided with an increase in domestic violence of 2 incidents per month (an 11% increase).

How can this affect local alcohol policy?

This study was the first attempt to evaluate the effects of these kind of small-scale licensing interventions, at the levels of individual premises in two of the case studies. We can conclude from this work that (a) the impact of local alcohol policy, even at the level of individual premises, can be evaluated using this methodology, and importantly, (b) that local government actions such as closure or restriction of venues and licensing can have a positive impact on health and crime in the immediate surrounding area.

This approach can potentially bridge the gap between the predominantly data-oriented approach by public health teams and the need for contextualised evidence for presentation to councillors, and we hope in future to build a database of such individual evaluations.

Acknowledgements

This study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research (Grant Reference Number PD-SPH-2015). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.  The NIHR School for Public Health Research is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield; Bristol; Cambridge; Imperial; and University College London; The London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM); LiLaC – a collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool and Lancaster; and Fuse – The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health a collaboration between Newcastle, Durham, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teesside Universities.

Dr Frank de Vocht is a Reader in Epidemiology and Public Health, and joined the Centre for Public Health, which is part of Population Health Sciences at Bristol Medical School in 2014.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.