The Highland Licensing Board has introduced a new policy to limit the amount of space supermarkets can use to display alcohol.
But the restrictions are only for new licensing applications, leading the board’s vice-convener Drew Millar to question the true impact of the ban – saying the “horse has already bolted on that issue”.
He also claimed the move could have serious implications on new developments, with the fear major supermarket chains will decide to ignore the Highlands for future investment.
The new policy was agreed after councillors heard from NHS Highland officials who claimed that alcohol-related hospital admissions in the region were “significantly in excess” of the Scottish average in more than half of the 22 council election areas.
Mr Millar said: “I don’t believe this new policy will have any effect on binge drinking in the Highlands and Islands.
“It is not retrospective, so does not affect the supermarkets already operating in the area, so those who want alcohol can still get it.
“It may also affect how supermarket chains view the Highlands for future developments.
“I represent Skye and we know of plans for three major stores, but these could now be lost because of this policy, which would affect potential jobs in the area.
“When you consider the number of supermarkets in the region where people can still buy booze, and the fact they can order online and get the likes of Asda to deliver to the door, this won’t have any effect on binge drinking as far as I can see.
“This is a policy I don’t think will make any impact on binge drinking, and will stifle development. There must be other ways of making an effect on what is a cultural and social problem.”
At present Tesco, the Co-op, Morrison and Asda are among 33 stores in the area which fill their shelves with drink up to 400 sq m – around 430 sq feet.
The board was told that more than 90% of the population lives within 10-minutes driving time of an off-licence.
The Morrisons supermarket chain also argues it will not stop binge drinking, while putting future developments in the area in jeopardy.
A spokesperson for the chain said: “These restrictions risk punishing responsible shoppers looking to purchase alcohol as part of their normal weekly shop. It will do nothing to stop irresponsible or excessive drinking but will limit Highland customers’ access to our full range of products.
“These restrictions could put at risk future retail investment in this part of Scotland.”
Under the board’s new policy there will be a presumption against granting an off-sales licences of more than 40sq metre.
Supermarkets and other businesses planning large display areas for alcohol off-sales will now have to prove to the board that the application will not cause alcohol harm to the local population.
Mr Millar’s colleague, board convener Maxine Smith, however championed the new policy, claiming they were taking a stand on limiting the availability of alcohol.
She said: “We do need to say enough is enough and start the trend for denormalising the consumption of alcohol to excess and making it less acceptable.
“The status quo was not an option. Other licensing boards are dealing with this but I think we are one of the first to make this decision.
“We do really need to say “enough is enough” and start setting the trend for minimising the consumption of alcohol to excess.”
Liz Smart, consultant in public health for NHS Highland, said: “It is our view that action can be taken through licensing.
Kevin Roach, past president of Highlands and Islands Licensed Trade Association, said it supports the decision made by licensing chiefs.
He said: “70 per cent of alcohol is bought in supermarkets and we are glad to see licensing chiefs would like to see people drink where they are supervised on-trade, which is pubs in general.
“Binge drinking is the issue and although this is not the answer to all of Scotland’s problems, it is a step in the right direction.”
The Co-op has 12 Highland stores with an alcohol display bigger than 40 sq m; Tesco has 11; Morrisons has three; Asda has two as does Lidl; Marks & Spencer and Scotmid have one each.