Are councils crushing superstrength?

Retailers like to think they make the decisions about what they do and don’t stock. But for some off-licences, that choice is restricted by licensing conditions.

Whatever the manufacturers of superstrength lagers and white ciders may say about their attitude to responsible drinking, the fact remains that their products are effectively banned from sale in many shops, notably in Brighton and Westminster, where the councils see a link between such drinks and street boozing.

Westminster Council has agreed voluntary deals with major retailers and independents to prohibit the sale of superstrength lagers and ciders. It has publicly called for the ban to be mandatory and rolled out more widely. The authority says the policy, along with other measures it has taken, has contributed to a major fall in violent crimes committed during the night.

The scheme started in 2007 and covered Marylebone High Street, before being extended to Pimlico and Victoria. Some 30 retailers are involved.

“Although the agreement is voluntary, so there are no direct enforcement actions if shops breach it, the council has the power to call a review of any licensed premises if there are problems with associated nuisance behaviour such as street drinking,” the authority points out.

“The council’s licensing committee can then potentially impose legally binding conditions on the licence, preventing managers from selling high-strength beers, ciders and lagers.”?Licence review?In Brighton, the city centre is covered by a licensing policy which makes the same kind of requests, though the terms can vary. Some shops cannot sell lagers of 6.5% abv or higher; some have agreed not to sell wine of more than 13% abv; some do not sell fortified wines.

A council spokesman explains: “Some conditions have been volunteered by the premises, some were transferred over from the old justice’s licence, and some were imposed by the licensing panel. Once a condition is on a licence, it must be upheld by the licence holder. If a licence holder does not comply with conditions, enforcement may be taken which can result in a premises licence review or even revocation.”?She dismisses the suggestion that all shops are being bound by a single diktat on superstrengths. “There is nothing in the legislation that would permit standard or blanket conditions,” she points out. Instead, the latest version of Brighton’s licensing policy offers “best practice” advice which includes the voluntary condition of restricting superstrength sales.

She denies that problem drinkers simply switch to other products, saying there is “no evidence” this is happening.

Sector in decline?Many off-licences in the Brighton area trade under the Offie and Hartleys names. Chas Majeed, of operating company M&O Trading, believes the market for superstrengths is in decline regardless of any licensing conditions that apply.

“Ten years ago we used to sell loads of it,” he says. “As times change sales have actually dropped. I think it’s good not to have these strong lagers – they do cause a lot of problems.”?But he feels the council’s good intentions apply more stringently to new licensees than existing ones, and also penalise craft

ciders which have higher than average abvs.

“It would help if they changed it to apply to everybody in the area, so it’s a level playing field,” he says. “If you apply for new licences you have to comply but the older licensees don’t get the same restrictions.”?Yet Majeed does agree that superstrengths attract undesirables. “It does benefit you not having them because you don’t get the problems that come with it,” he says.

Indeed one of his shops outside the city centre has made its own decision not to stock them, even though the licensing authority did not request this.

OLN legal expert Peter Coulson says licensing conditions which ban drinks of a certain strength remain “unusual”. He adds: “The condition is challengeable, not being strictly within the actual terms of the licensing objectives, but the justification is the prevention of crime and disorder, that is from guys getting drunk too quickly on the streets. One could say the same for spirits and Buckfast, but they don’t seem to have the same issues.”??