An opportunity to ‘have their say’? Community engagement in local alcohol decision-making in England

“Street drinking, begging, fighting, urinating, vomiting… and that wasn’t really a late-night economy, that was [an] afternoon.”(Public health practitioner)

There are a range of health and social issues arising from the local alcohol environment with wide-reaching impacts, not just for those doing the drinking. Decisions made at the local government level can influence the availability and accessibility of alcohol, and therefore potentially reduce these types of harm faced by the public. However, there are a range of interests at play within decisions about the alcohol environment. The potential benefits for the local economy, employment and leisure may be offset by the risks of increased crime, anti-social behaviour and disturbance faced by local communities.

Given this potential for harm, how much influence should communities have in decisions affecting the local alcohol environment? And how best to support them to become engaged in decision-making processes? UK licensing legislation recommends that communities should ‘have their say’ in the allocation of licenses to sell alcohol by local government. But what this process looks like in practice, and the extent to which communities can really shape such decisions is unclear. These questions guided our recent study to explore examples of community engagement in local alcohol decision-making – the CELAD study – with a focus on three local authority areas in the North West, South East and Yorkshire & the Humber regions of England.

And then we started the residents’ association, which was partly prompted by this, what we considered to be an excess of alcohol outlets and some really dumb opening hours.(Resident of urban area)

Deep frustration with the impacts of decisions being made by local authorities regarding the licensing of premises to sell alcohol has led to some community groups mobilising to take action. Spurred on by suffering the anti-social behaviour, vandalism and noise associated with a proliferation of alcohol outlets and availability of “cheap booze,” some residents started working together to make formal objections against licensed premises and new licence applications. However, navigating the licensing process is no easy matter for the non-expert, and residents talked of the difficulties of wading through complex “legalese,” frequently facing disappointment when their objections were overlooked.

The practitioners and councillors we spoke to also recognise the difficulties with submitting objections within the alcohol licensing process, with its “impenetrable” language and “intimidating” requirements for evidence. This has led to practitioners in one area working with other regional local authorities to develop an online guidance resource for communities wanting to input to the licensing process. Yet, there is still some doubt about the potential for this guidance to really make an impact on communities’ abilities to be engaged. With continuing budget cuts and restructuring in local authorities, practitioners find themselves increasingly stretched in their work, and there is a sense that promoting this licensing guidance and offering support to communities will not be a priority for all.

Their experience of alcohol harms in their own words. (from a practitioner presentation on policy consultation process)

Elsewhere, however, practitioners spoke to us about the added value to their work of gathering community members’ voices around local alcohol issues. A public health practitioner described the difficulties she faced with pushing for a new policy to restrict new licences in areas already saturated with alcohol outlets. It wasn’t until she was able to gather the views and experiences of different groups – residents, local business owners, voluntary groups – relating to alcohol harms that she felt there was a compelling enough story to convince councillors to approve this policy. The accounts of the community, alongside other evidence about the extent of alcohol-related harms in these areas, formed a report recommending the introduction of the policy, which was subsequently approved. A councillor remarked that the policy had indeed “come from the community.

So that’s when we looked around to see what we could do, we looked that other cities and towns had gone for cumulative impact policies…  We got in touch with licensing and said can we have a cumulative impact policy? – we’ll look into it.(City centre resident)

Being part of the evidence-gathering process to support the introduction of new policy seems to be a potentially effective way for community members to influence the local alcohol environment. We spoke with a city centre residents’ group frustrated with their unsuccessful attempts to block the opening of late-night off-licences which they felt were contributing to anti-social behaviour. They described looking to see what kinds of policies have been implemented elsewhere to address this issue, and then pushed the licensing team to consider these options. The local authority then set up a task group, including representatives of the residents’ group, to explore policy options for reducing alcohol-related harms in the city centre. Subsequently, a report recommending the introduction of a new policy was produced, including information gathered by the residents’ group on alcohol-related incidents witnessed by other residents and local businesses. The policy proposal is currently under consideration by the local authority.

“It’s only a small number of people who are ever active in this way.” (Public health practitioner)

These accounts reveal opportunities for community groups to get involved in decision-making and potentially help shape their local environments to reduce harms from alcohol. However, a persistent theme among those we spoke to was the challenge of engaging with all of the people who have a right to have their voice heard.  Those with most capacity and already mobilised to be engaged – like the city centre residents’ group – are those best positioned to push their local authority, and to get involved in consultations and influence alcohol decisions. This then leaves behind those with least capacity to be engaged. And while this is a well-recognised issue across many areas of community engagement, it’s especially worrying in relation to the alcohol environment.

We know that people on the lowest incomes face disproportionately high harms from alcohol compared with those better off. So, if mechanisms to engage communities to shape the alcohol environment favour those with more time and resources to be involved, it may worsen the inequalities we already see in relation to alcohol harms. This means that careful work needs to be done to ensure that engagement in alcohol decision-making is equitable and supports the involvement of those who suffer most from the alcohol environment. And while this may be a difficult task given the increasingly stretched capacity of local authorities in times of austerity, it’s a vital step to helping address critical inequalities relating to alcohol.

About the author

Joanna Reynolds is a Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics.  The CELAD study was led by Joanna in collaboration with colleagues from London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Lancaster University, and the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Salford.  It was funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research.

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