City bringing in minimum unit pricing "to make a stand"

04 October, 2013

The man who is intent on bringing minimum unit pricing to one of England’s largest cities said he is not worried about defying central government’s decision to scrap the measure.

Stephen Savage, licensing officer at Newcastle City Council, told OLN: “Somebody has to take a stand”.

The government abandoned the proposed scheme after the industry argued it would punish responsible drinkers and the Home Office admitted there was not enough evidence to suggest it would work.

But Savage believes it will cut crime and improve health in Newcastle and said he is determined to use licensing policy to tackle the city’s problems.

He said: “We have, like most major cities, a drink problem so we decided to tackle it through the licensing policy.

“If we have an off-licence in an area where there are street drinkers and crime and disorder, one of the measures we would impose under review would be minimum unit pricing of 50p per unit.”

Savage said he has already convinced several bars in the city centre to change their licences so that they cannot sell alcohol at less than 50p per unit.

He added that in the coming months “we will get some off-licences with minimum unit pricing in their licences”.

Miles Beale, chief executive at the WSTA, warned that Savage’s actions are “dangerous” and said he was consulting the Office of Fair Trading on whether they are legal.

“A local authority has no role in fixing prices and any such intervention would set a dangerous precedent,” he told OLN. “The advice we have received confirms that local authorities would be over-extending their licensing powers with this type of intervention. We have written to the OFT to ask it to provide legal clarity on this issue.”

James Anderson, a licensing lawyer at Poppleston Allen, questioned the legality of implementing the measure at a local level and said it would be liable to a High Court challenge.

But Savage said: “Everyone says you can’t do that but [with the city centre bars] it was done by a mutual condition. We are not particularly worried by the government because it’s done by mutual consent. Somebody has to make a stand somewhere.”

He admitted that bars have little to lose from a 50p minimum unit price and said: “Minimum unit pricing would have more effect on off-licences. I can see why off-licences would not want to do it. I think the only way to get people to do it is by imposing it upon them.”

When asked how this is consistent with mutual consent, he said minimum unit pricing was a lesser punishment than losing your licence under review, so he thought people would sign up.

Savage has also started a Reducing the Strength scheme like the one pioneered in Ipswich (see below), but beers and ciders above 5% abv are banned in certain shops rather than the 6.5% abv-plus products in Ipswich and elsewhere.

He is also agreeing conditions with off-licences to make sure they only sell alcohol in a certain part of the shop. “We just agreed conditions with Tesco to give it a licence – a limited area to sell alcohol in, no beer and cider over 5% abv,” he said.

He said Newcastle is “saturated” with off-licences and that conditions will be imposed upon new ones – and existing ones under review – to give the council “a measure of control” and promote responsible drinking.

Ten Greater Manchester councils, East Cheshire council and the Welsh government are all also considering introducing minimum unit pricing.

But Beale said: “Rather than wasting precious time and resources on initiatives that open the council and retailers to legal challenge, local authorities should concentrate their efforts on working in partnership with a willing industry to tackle alcohol misuse through initiatives such as Community Alcohol Partnerships.”

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