Longer opening hours were a complete success. How did the experts get it so wrong?

    22 July 2016

    A House of Lords committee is currently conducting a review of the 2003 Licensing Act, aka ’24-hour drinking’. I gave evidence to them this week and was struck by the fact that there are two extreme views of the Licensing Act which have been doing the rounds since before the Act came into force in November 2005.

    The first is that changing the licensing laws was supposed to create a European café-style drinking culture in which people would sip Sancerre in plazas. The second is that the Act was going to lead to round-the-clock binge-drinking that would create an epidemic of violence and ill health.

    Given these two opposing viewpoints, it has become fashionable to say that everyone called it wrong; that the Licensing Act wasn’t the disaster some people feared, but that it wasn’t a success either since the café culture never materialised. This polarisation of extreme views is deeply misleading. The claim that the Licensing Act would lead to a Mediterranean café culture was made — perhaps slightly in jest — by one or two people on the fringes of the debate and was never mentioned by those who instigated the reforms, such as Tony Blair and Tessa Jowell. Like trains being delayed by ‘the wrong kind of snow’ it made us laugh at the time. That is why we remember it.

    By contrast, the belief that the Act would lead to drinking round the clock, higher rates of alcohol consumption, more drunkenness, more alcohol-related crime and more alcohol-related deaths was the consensus view of the entire public health establishment, the police force, the judiciary, every newspaper in the country and large numbers of backbenchers on both sides of the House of Commons.

    If you look at what people like Tony Blair actually wanted to achieve from the legislation, you will find that the objectives were far more practical and achievable than getting people to sit outside cafés in the British weather. ‘The law-abiding majority who want the ability, after going to the cinema or theatre say, to have a drink at the time they want should not be inconvenienced,’ said Blair. ‘We shouldn’t have to have restrictions that no other city in Europe has, just in order to do something for that tiny minority who abuse alcohol, who go out and fight and cause disturbances. To take away that ability for all the population — even the vast majority who are law abiding — is not, in my view, sensible.’

    In short, the government wanted to give drinkers more freedom. It wanted to sweep away archaic and unpopular regulations. It wanted to put an end to the ’11 o’clock swill’ and the problems associated with it. It wanted to diversify the nighttime economy. Insofar as there was any attempt at European harmonisation, it was in bringing the nighttime economy into the modern age so that visitors from abroad would no longer be bemused by pub closing times that were better suited to the First World War than to the 21st century. And it wanted to do all this without seeing an increase in alcohol-related problems. On each of these counts, it has — to a greater or lesser extent — succeeded.

    So it is simply not the case that everybody was wrong about the Licensing Act and the opponents were no more wrong than the supporters. The opponents could not have been more wrong. Their prophecies of doom now look absurd to anyone who is familiar with the empirical data.

    If we are going to learn anything from this experience, we should ask how so many learned people could be so mistaken. It is, I think, because they believed in two concepts that are integral to the temperance/public health view of alcohol: availability theory and the whole population theory. Availability theory says that if alcohol becomes more available there will be more alcohol consumed by the population. The whole population theory says that if the population drinks more alcohol there will be more alcohol-related harm. Put these two together and you have to conclude that greater availability must result in more harm.

    Partly as a result of the Licensing Act, both of these theories have taken quite a knock in the last 11 years, but few people have noticed and the public health lobby has no incentive to draw attention to it. Alcohol has undoubtedly become more available since 2005, both in terms of the number of premises with a licence and in terms of the number of hours these premises are open. And yet per capita alcohol consumption has fallen by 18 per cent since its peak in 2004.

    This is the opposite of what public health theory would predict and it is the opposite of what the public health lobby did predict. That leads us on to the whole population approach. According to the whole population model, an 18 per cent drop in per capita consumption should lead to a roughly commensurate drop in alcohol-related mortality. But while the number of alcohol-related deaths has not risen, it has not fallen either, and the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions has risen.

    In terms of crime, disorder, drink-driving, underage drinking and alcohol-related violence things have improved significantly. The temperance lobby might say that the Licensing Act had nothing to do with these positive trends and that they would have happened anyway. That may be true, but imagine a parallel universe in which we had not relaxed opening hours in 2005 and had instead restricted them or brought in minimum pricing. Do you think they would be saying that it is mere coincidence that these indicators have all improved in the last 11 years?

    We shall never know, of course, but it is telling that the best argument opponents of the Act can make in 2016, having said in 2005 that we were heading for armageddon, is that it is an irrelevance; that it made no real difference either way.

    But it has made a real difference in the most important way — in the way that tends to be ignored when we pore over aggregate statistics of crime and health. It has allowed millions of people to live their lives a little more freely, particularly outside the big cities where it was relatively easy to get a drink after 11pm before 2005.

    People talk about economic benefits, but allowing people to pursue their own preferences and satisfy their own desires is the most important economic benefit of all. Once unchained from restrictive and anachronistic regulation, the nighttime economy has been able to evolve to meet people’s preferences. Not wholly, not perfectly, but to a greater extent than before. That is a good thing. The fact that it has done so without all the negative consequences predicted by so many people in 2005 is a bonus.