Violence rates unaffected by 24-hour licensing laws

Study finds no correlation between violent crime and flexible alcohol licensing following the 2003 Licensing Act, with researchers describing the policy intervention as "built on weak evidence".

The enthusiasm to act needs to be balanced with careful and systematic attempts to understand the implications and effectiveness of these interventions
David Humphreys

A new study on violent crime and flexible alcohol licensing in Manchester - focusing on the two years before and two years after the introduction of the Licensing Act in late 2005 - has found no evidence that changes to licensing legislation had any effect on levels of violence.

The study was carried out at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, and is published today in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

The 2003 Licensing Act - introduced in November 2005 - allowed pubs, clubs and off-licences to apply for later licensing hours beyond the traditional 11pm cut-off in an effort to curb levels of alcohol-related street violence, in the belief that, by staggering the point at which people were forced to stop drinking, revellers would not empty into the streets at the same time of night, so confrontations would be less likely.

Many opposed the Act, with media headlines and some MPs warning that it would have the opposite effect - serving to increase alcohol-related violence as it would allow more people to continue drinking beyond the point of controlling their aggression.

The study used data from Greater Manchester Police and the Local Authority to compare recorded rates of violence rates with licensed trading hours in wards across the city from February 2004 to December 2007 - roughly two years either side of legislative change.

While some premises kept the previous closing time, others started to sell alcohol later into the night. Researchers investigated the extent to which licensed closing times had become staggered in neighbourhoods across Manchester after the Licensing Act was implemented.

They found that, on average, there was between 27-32% reduction in the concentration of closing times on weekdays and between 48-53% on weekends.

The researchers found no evidence that the increased staggering of closing times were associated with lower rates of violence, as suggested by some politicians before the Act.

Researchers also investigated the claims of the Act’s critics: that increases in licensed alcohol availability would lead to increased violence and disorder. Following the implementation of the Act average trading times increased between 30 to 45 minutes per premise on weekdays and by 1 hour and 20 minutes at weekends - far lower than was anticipated.

When cross-referencing police records of street violence with changes to licensing hours across the city, the researchers found no evidence that increases in alcohol availability had any association with increases in levels of violence.

"Over the past decade, England and Wales have witnessed a series of political prevention initiatives for alcohol-related harm that have been implemented largely without evaluation or systematic appraisal," said Dr David Humphreys, who conducted the research while at Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.

"This has resulted in missed opportunities to generate evidence, and a missed opportunity to learn, both of and from, any mistakes."

Humphreys points to the recent announcement of a ’late night levy’ in Newcastle - where premises serving beyond midnight will have to pay additional fees - as the latest in a long list of initiatives to tackle alcohol-related crime that lacks "any plans to rigorously investigate effectiveness".

In the study, the authors write that opportunities to generate better evidence about the effects of the flexible licensing policy may have been missed due to the lack of government attention to monitoring and evaluation.

"While the emphasis on change and improvement should be encouraged, the enthusiasm to act needs to be balanced with careful and systematic attempts to understand the implications and effectiveness of these interventions," Humphreys said.

The study found some evidence to suggest that areas in which the density of alcohol outlets increased might be associated with increases in violence, regardless of individual licensing - although researchers describe this evidence as "weak".

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