Wednesday, 10 November 2010

An over-provision of grandstanding

While it's effectively been dead and buried for months, today will see the formal last rites administered to the SNP Government's minimum pricing proposal for alcohol. Of course, this will be accompanied by lots of self-righteous oohing and ahhing, and accusations of political opportunism - which are probably well-founded - but the measure deserves to fail, if only because it would make only a marginal difference to the problem, unless the price was set at punitive levels.

But the paucity of thinking on the subject was ably demonstrated a few weeks ago, when West Dumbartonshire Council hit the headlines because of its decision to ban new alcohol licences over much of its territory on the grounds of over-provision.

While this blog has been here before in relation to a Glasgow proposal, it's probably worth saying a few words on the latest development in this area. This really is pitiful stuff. The Herald's article says:
The council said research has been carried out jointly by the local authority, NHS and police, which demonstrated “a clear link between the problems experienced in the area and the number of licensed premises” and calculated the number of licensed premises from a 2007 report by the health board.
Which is about as instructive as saying that more tins of beans are sold in an area with lots of supermarkets. So a moratorium on new licences would achieve what in terms of alcohol consumption?

Well it seems highly unlikely that anyone won't be able to buy a drink even with these new policies in place - stopping new supermarkets wouldn't reduce the number of tins of beans sold. But just suppose Soviet-style queues at pubs and off-licences meant that consumption is decreased there - what happens then?

Well drinkers will go elsewhere in the area, so no change there then. Ah, but prospective new operators in other areas will have to prove that drinkers from the over-provided areas won't travel there. Unprovable, so does this mean that there is effectively a blanket ban over the whole area? But even then the currently under provided areas will take up the slack, surely, on existing licences?

The irony is that in these areas of so-called over-provision there's likely to be significant over-capacity - to put it in more commercial terms - thus curtailing new licences won't reduce consumption one iota. It will merely provide a monopoly and thus lack of competition for existing outlets.

As a licensed trade lobby group said, this is more about political grandstanding than anything else. Unfortunately it's even cruder than that. Indeed, the only remotely conceivable - but still highly unlikely - deterrent to consumption would be that the pubs in the area become so busy that drinkers would rely on supermarkets and off-licences instead. And since people certainly won't be queueing at the door at such outlets, the consequence could well be to increase consumption through cheaper home boozing, à la the smoking ban.

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