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Under-age drinking 'will not stop'

16 June 08 23:18 GMT

Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Armadale is no different to any other small town in Scotland.

Among its 9,000-strong population is a minority of young people intent on getting their hands on alcohol - which often leads to anti-social behaviour, or worse, causing misery for the law-abiding majority.

Yet this unassuming West Lothian town is likely to be at the heart of the Scottish Government's drive to tackle Scotland's long and unhealthy relationship with drink.

In March 2008 it was announced Armadale would become the first part of Scotland to ban alcohol off-sales to people under 21 on Friday and Saturday nights.

The scheme, set up by the local council, police and retailers, ran for six weeks. The authorities were cautiously optimistic.

West Lothian Council, warning the scheme would not stop all youths getting hold of drink, did not want to speculate on its future chances.

Armadale, the local authority stressed, was not chosen for the pilot scheme because its alcohol-related problems were particularly bad, more because of the practical issues such as its self-contained nature and, more importantly, getting all the off-sales in the town to sign up.

If there was any apprehension about the success of the scheme, which also took in the neighbouring villages of Blackridge and Westfield, it was not borne out by the results.

Recorded calls about vandalism and assault fell by half and there was a 55% cut in calls from residents to police about youths.

Anecdotal evidence from youth workers also dispelled one of the main concerns - that teenagers would go to other towns to buy their drink - but the view from the ground was they had stuck to their usual territory.

Ch Insp Jim Baird, of Lothian and Borders Police, said that although Armadale's crime figures were low at the outset, there was a drop in the number of youths making a pest of themselves on the streets, before the figures returned to their previous levels at the end.

He told BBC Scotland: "What the cops on the street were reporting was seeing 18 and 19-year-olds who they hadn't seen sober at the weekends being sober at the start of the under-21 ban and right the way through it."

The West Lothian pilot may have been seen as a success - but whether that same success could be repeated nationally is a different matter.

Off-sale shops in the area were all sold on the pilot - yet retailer umbrella group the Scottish Retail Consortium says Scottish ministers are sending confused messages if they continue to allow 18-year-olds to be served in bars, pubs and clubs.

Ch Insp Baird recognises this problem. "All licensees in the area must agree.

"If one doesn't agree then it won't work, because none of the other licensees will cut their throat by stopping selling to a group while other licensees are doing so."

And if such a scheme was introduced in towns like Armadale on a permanent basis - how long would it be before residents, if at all, came round to the viewpoint that you could get married in the local village hall, but not be legally allowed to buy champagne for the wedding.

Local store manager John Anderson said that although he did not notice a major difference, he backed the under-21 approach - with one reservation.

"If we refuse a sale, what's to stop them going to a pub or a club," he said.

The critics' viewpoint of the policy is that Scottish ministers need to play the long game by changing attitudes to alcohol through education.

That is one of the priorities of the Holyrood administration - but when official figures state that drink costs Scottish society an estimated £2.25bn every year and claims six lives a day, perhaps residents in all the towns like Armadale, and everywhere else in Scotland, will embrace radical action.

So, can any strategy nip underage drinking in the bud?

"I don't think you'll ever stop it," said Mr Anderson. "It will be hidden but it will never be stopped."

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