FEARS have been raised over the supply of booze in the Capital, after it emerged that the concerns of health experts have been continually overruled by city licensing chiefs.
A “new era” was hailed for off-sales in the city when NHS Lothian was given the power to object to applications to sell alcohol across Edinburgh, leading to an expectation that it would be far harder to obtain licences in areas already flooded with drink retailers.
But it has emerged that while NHS Lothian has formally objected to 19 applications on health grounds in the past two years, licences have eventually been granted on every single occasion.
And Jim Sherval, who advises the city’s licensing board on behalf of NHS Lothian, has shunned monthly meetings ever since the committee once again went against his advice and allowed alcohol to be sold in four new mini-supermarkets in November – a move he described at the time as a “major blow”.
It is understood that Mr Sherval, who previously penned a report into alcohol over-provision in Edinburgh, is instead lobbying to strengthen the council’s statement of policy around licensing, which is up for review this year. Advocates of the booze bans hope that by creating a stronger policy, the city will be better placed to fight off legal challenges from retailers if their applications are thrown out on the grounds of over-provision.
But critics have claimed that members of the licensing committee have used the legal arguments over licences as a “convenient excuse” to dismiss the views of health experts, despite evidence suggesting a link between increased alcohol consumption and availability.
A source said: “Jim was not being listened to by the licensing board. Just a handful could see the value of listening to an expert. It’s no wonder he isn’t turning up at the meetings.
“The arguments used have been that there hasn’t been strong enough legal grounds, but there was a decision in Glasgow to refuse a licence on the grounds of over-provision. The sheriff said it was up to the licensing boards to apply their local knowledge and if they consider there is over-provision they are within their rights to refuse a licence.”
In April last year Sainsbury’s was denied a licence after it applied to open a store in South Bridge. But the council later backed down, as it did with two other applications it initially rejected, after the supermarket appealed.
Since then a series of applications have been waved through despite the objections of NHS Lothian, including a new Sainsbury’s in Portobello High Street where provision of off-licences was double the Edinburgh average. Other applications granted despite health fears include Sainsbury’s at Princes Mall and Tesco in Morrison Street and Princes Street.
NHS Lothian also warned against allowing larger booze aisles in Asda superstores in Leith and at The Jewel in July – but city licensing leaders again went against their advice.
City centre councillor Joanna Mowat, who sits on the licensing board, said: “We all understand the need to regulate alcohol because it’s a drug and potentially harmful. When you issue a licence you have to deal with each licence on individual merit or otherwise. To tie a particular impact of a particular licence to health outcomes is almost impossible to do, especially beforehand.
“When Jim brought information forward it was very difficult to tie it to particular applications in a way that would have stood up in court when challenged. I’m not sure it was a great use of taxpayers’ money, or Jim’s time, to have him sitting there.”
Professor Alison McCallum, NHS Lothian’s director of public health and health policy, said controlling availability was “key” in addressing alcohol problems and that she was “very pleased” to have an input in decisions. She added: “There is not an expectation that we attend every licensing board meeting.”
Licensing board convener Councillor Eric Milligan said: “The licensing board receives comments on applications from consultees such as NHS Lothian and the police. These comments are taken into careful consideration, along with any concerns raised, when decisions are made to grant or deny licences.”