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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 March 2008, 11:33 GMT
Why booze culture refuses to die
By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

A woman sitting on an English street
The Licensing Act was intended to tame the night-time economy
When the new Licensing Act was first proposed in 2005, it seemed like complete madness.

Our town and city centres are filled with drunks - so let's pass a law making it easier for them to drink more, and for longer.

But the legislation was supposed to be exactly the opposite: an attempt to civilise and control.

No-go areas

The story goes back to the 1980s, when the collapse of traditional manufacturing led local authorities to look at new ways to promote growth and create jobs.

They landed on the idea of the night-time economy: run-down urban centres would be regenerated into continental-style piazzas filled with bars and restaurants.

But the dream of a cafe culture quickly evaporated.

There has been little change in the binge-drinking habits of Britain's youth

Drinks industry lawyers won a key battle against magistrates which meant licences could not be refused on the basis that there were quite enough bars in an area.

The result was that one type of business elbowed out almost all others - the mega-pub, selling cheap alcohol to 18 to 24 year olds.

Just over a decade later, the binge-drinking culture dominated the night-time economy to the extent that town and city centres had become virtual no-go areas after dark for large parts of the population.

Drink-fuelled crime

Government ministers looked at how they might reawaken that dream of the sophisticated, continental- style drinking culture.

Their answer was to give local authorities control of licensing. One powerful tool would be the "cumulative assessment impact", which would mean that if an area had alcohol-related disorder problems councils could declare it a "saturation zone", and no new drink licences would be issued.

But only 17% of local authorities have implemented such zones following assessments, according to research.

And, interestingly, areas like the north-east and north-west of England - which have among the highest levels of alcohol-related health problems - have the fewest saturation zones.

Although it became seen as the government's answer to drink-fuelled crime, the Licensing Act's job was about taming that night-time economy.

But it has not really delivered.

There has been little change in the binge-drinking habits of Britain's youth, and too many of our towns and cities remain off-limits to millions after dark.

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