As I write we await the outcome of the House of Lords investigation into the workings of the Licensing Act 2003. One of the things it was considering was whether “protecting and promoting public health” should be added as a fifth licensing objective. I don’t know what their Lordships will conclude on this issue, although rumour has it they will not recommend this. But that hasn’t stopped Public Health England (PHE) from publishing “Public Health and Licensing Guidance”, subtitled “A simple guide for responding to applications as a responsible authority”. Directors of public health have been included as responsible authorities under the Licensing Act since 2013, so many in the “public health” community may consider this guidance long overdue.
So, we have a guidance document consisting of some 27 sides of A4 that explains to local public health practitioners how to object to a licence application based on one or more of the four existing licensing objectives, notwithstanding that “public health” isn’t one of them! As the document explains on page seven: “Although the licensing objectives do not include a health objective, there is a health and well-being angle to each of them. It is also possible for a director of public health to have an independent and supporting role as a responsible authority. The above provide some examples that do not cover the full range of opportunities for public health involvement, but outline some composite examples of actions that have been taken by responsible authorities that directly draw on the connection of health to the existing objectives.”
The reference in the second sentence of the paragraph quoted to “the above” refers to examples regarding how a director of public health might smuggle in a health objection as an objection based on, say, public nuisance: “…a representation requesting noise-related conditions or objecting to an extension of hours for an application using evidence on the health impacts that sleep deficit can have on the local residents.” Or evidence from: “...last drinks survey data, A&E and ambulance data indicating a high number of alcohol poisoning cases coming from a particular premises, or from within its near vicinity.”
You can see right here the difficulty in relating general evidence to a particular application for a premises that hasn’t yet opened or had its hours extended. You can also see the implicit assumption of PHE is local directors of public health should be looking for reasons to object. In fact, the guidance document proposes a traffic light system based on “red” and “green” applications. A “red” application – one that would need to be looked at with a view to making a representation – would include any application for off-licences, any application for hours after midnight or before 8am, anything within a cumulative impact policy, nightclubs, premises reviews by other responsible authorities and high volume or “vertical drinking” establishments.
Whereas a “green” application – one that would be of low concern to public health – might include applications for restaurants before midnight, food venues before midnight, theatre bars before midnight, changes to the designated premises supervisor and Temporary Event Notices as the director of public health does not have the remit to respond to these.
Clearly these benighted nannies don’t want the citizenry up and drinking after midnight – and even then only in posh eateries or theatre bars – but preferably not at all! When your starting point is it’s the availability of alcohol that makes people drink it, and that population levels of consumption drive alcohol harm, then it should come as no surprise the starting point for directors of public health in relation to any application for a new licence is “how can we stop it”? The purpose of the traffic light system is merely to sift out applications where an objection would stand little chance of success.
I hope the House of Lords and the government will not introduce a health licensing objective – much less a “health and well-being” objective – and if you read the PHE guidance document you will see how often that word is insinuated into the text. The system we have works well as it is, and scarce resources need to be directed at those who really are drinking at unhealthy and damaging levels, not at making mischief through gratuitous objections to individual licence applications based on an objection to beverage alcohol as such, rather than any real local concerns.