Knee-jerk reactions by councils will heap new burdens on retailers. Partnerships are the way forward, says James Lowman

Of all the laws brought in by the government, not many could surpass the Licensing Act as an example of how not to sell a change in the law to the public and media. From when it was first proposed, the badge '24-hour drinking' has been frequently used to undermine the government and its record on alcohol-related harm.

Now even the architects of the legislation are adopting the critical language used to describe it. Witness Gordon Brown's conference promise to end 24-hour drinking by giving councils new powers. The Tories responded a week later, promising sweeping licensing reform.

The PM's plan to give councils the power to limit 24-hour drinking in an area will have limited impact. There are fewer than 700 c-stores and about 800 supermarkets with licences that permit them to sell alcohol 24 hours a day, and the vast majority of c-stores that have the licence will not trade for 24 hours a day. This equates to about 1% of all premises licensed for off-sales.

However, I have concerns. Firstly, the continuing pressure from ministers and councils to shift the law away from a flexible regulatory framework that treats businesses as individuals and on their own merits towards a more authoritarian, prescriptive group approach.

Secondly, this approach encourages political one-upmanship where councils seek to be the strictest, and the consequence is that regulatory burdens spiral just look at Scotland, where politicians have summarily decided that shops should not sell alcohol before 10am and after 10pm irrespective of where businesses are located and how well they are run.

Opening hours are only one example of the kneejerk policy-making that is creeping into local licensing decisions. Some of these policies are well established, such as the requirement to have a Challenge 21 policy or the highly prescriptive rules on staff training. But, newer, more controversial measures are appearing. Manchester City Council is looking at applying a requirement to charge a minimum alcohol price in its area, for instance. The concept of a council-by-council approach to regulating the price and marketing of alcohol products is the kind of brave new world we should fear most.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have made it clear they would "tear up Labour's lax licensing laws" and that they favour localised decision-making, a de-regulatory vision that would encourage councils to impose regulatory burdens in areas such as alcohol licensing.

The industry faces an uphill battle to convince current or future governments to resist the urge to tinker. We have to prepare for a more fragmented regulatory world, in which council officers, police and community leaders will hold even greater discretionary power over the way we sell alcohol. Retailers will have to work hard to ensure authorities properly understand the business impacts of their decisions and wherever possible encourage voluntary and partnership-based solutions to alcohol-related problems.

This is why the ACS and others are investing in on-the-ground partnership building, such as the successful Community Alcohol Partnership. Partnerships make a real difference and authorities in areas where they are working are less likely to impose burdens on retailers. If you haven't started building these relationships locally, now is the time to act.

James Lowman is ACS chief executive.

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