Councils have been trying to introduce minimum unit pricing through the back door, penalise off-licences in areas where they feel binge drinking is rife and bully retailers into adopting Reducing the Strength schemes, and the trade associations feel the changes will buoy them up.
New guidance under section 182 of the Licensing Act was introduced last week.
It encourages local public health officials to get involved in licensing and use health data to clamp down on off-licences in areas where they feel under-age drinking, proxy purchasing or alcohol-related crime or accidents are a problem.
It calls on officers to “link ambulance call outs or attendances at emergency departments to irresponsible practices”, such as promotions put on by specific retailers.
James Lowman, chief executive at the Association of Convenience Stores, told OLN: “This guidance will embolden those local public health officials that are already seeking to intervene in the licensing system.
“There is a significant issue with the way that health data is being used – more often than not generalised local or national data is being used to try to impose specific restrictions on local business. This can undermine the principle of the Act, which is that every application must be assessed on its merits.
“The link between health data and licensing objectives requires much more thought and consideration.”
The guidance encourages local councils to impose conditions on licence holders to ensure they comply with the Portman Group’s retailer alert bulletins.
The updated guidance also urges councils to act if a licensee is causing public nuisance with noise, light pollution, noxious smells, litter, dust and insects.
Lowman said: “We are disappointed that government has made a number of changes to the guidance without undertaking a proper public consultation. These will impact how a retailer gets and operates its alcohol licence, yet there has been no consultation and no assessment of the regulatory impact.
“It is poor practice and undermines government’s commitments to better regulation.”
The Wine & Spirit Trade Association is worried the guidance hands more power to local councils that could be used to undermine retailers, and that it will lead to a raft of unnecessary licence reviews.
A WSTA spokesman said: “There is concern that aspects of the revised guidance could lead to unnecessary licensing reviews, particularly given that many local authorities are already pushing the boundaries with questionable licensing restrictions.
“While we are fully supportive of the Portman Group code, to ensure products are marketed and packaged responsibly, linking voluntary codes to licensing conditions could have unintended consequences for retailers.”
Lowman added: “Overall the changes are unclear in their intention and significantly negative in their tone.
“Imposed without consultation they will serve to confuse rather than help councils and industry who should be focused on working together to tackle alcohol related harm in the local area.”