This is a plain English summary of an original research article
Local authorities with stricter alcohol licensing policies saw the greatest decline in alcohol-related crime between 2009 and 2013, but from a higher base. Violent crime reduced from 6.1 to 4.9 per 1000 people, compared to a reduction from 3.9 to 3.3 per 1000 in areas with more “passive” policies. Reporting of offences did rise again after 2013 and the influence of other policy changes can’t be excluded.
Authorities adopting stricter policies present more challenges to licence applications and are typically set in areas with higher deprivation and more alcohol sales outlets. Limiting alcohol availability may reduce consumption and therefore the risk of associated harms. In these types of study, it is difficult to control for all other policy influences that might also have happened in this time period. However, results do offer new analyses that contribute to our understanding of an important issue for communities and local authorities.
This study analyses national data for most local authorities in England over a five-year period. The use of local trend data can usefully point towards promising areas for future action.
Many local communities are affected by harmful drinking. Commissioners in local authorities and NHS organisations may wish to consider licensing policies as part of wider strategies to reduce the impact of harmful drinking in their communities.
Why was this study needed?
Harmful drinking is one of seven priorities identified by Public Health England. Costing society up to £23 billion a year, £11 billion of which is from alcohol-related crime, harmful drinking has an impact across many public services. According to the latest Crime Survey for England and Wales, 47% of victims of violent crimes thought the offender was under the influence of alcohol. In 2012/13, there were 326,000 hospital admissions where alcohol was the main reason for admission.
A previous study by the same researchers has found links between local licensing policies and alcohol-related hospital admissions. However, there has been little research into the impact of alcohol policies on alcohol-related crimes in society. This study analysing local crime data against local licensing policies aimed to address this gap.
What did this study do?
Data on violent and sexual offences in each local authority in England was collected between 2009 and 2014 from the Office for National Statistics, and converted to rates per 1,000 people.
The proportion of crimes that could be put down to alcohol was estimated using the Alcohol-Attributable Fraction. This is the proportion of crime that could theoretically be avoided if the risk factor, alcohol, was completely removed. Rates of financial fraud were used as a “control” for comparison.
Complete data, including information on local deprivation and density of alcohol-sales outlets, was available for 284 of 326 local authorities in England (87%). Amongst these 171 (60%) had some form of active alcohol policy in place and all were graded according to their “intensity”. Four grades, passive, low, medium and high were based on data of local authority willingness to implement cumulative impact policies and refusal of licence applications over several years.
There are a few limitations that the authors mention. For example, the dataset may be incomplete due to under-reporting of crime. It is also difficult to be sure of the direct impact of a policy as various other factors will influence crime rates. The authors corrected for things such as deprivation, population size, alcohol related admissions, but it is possible that these factors might be still influencing the results. Other policy changes might have influenced the trends over time, such as the publicity surrounding operation “Yew Tree” investigation into sex offences, or changes to policing in areas with many bars and pubs. Despite these, the study is consistent with other data sources and by using local area data provides a new perspective on this important public health issue.
What did it find?
- Rates of alcohol-related violent crime decreased between 2009 and 2013. The decline was steeper in areas with high-intensity alcohol policies where rates fell from 6.1 per 1000 people in 2009 to 4.9 per 1000 in 2013. By comparison violent crime rates reduced from 3.9 to 3.3 per 1000 in areas with more “passive” policies.
- In 2013, violent crime rates seemed to increase again, more rapidly in areas with more intensive policies. The rate in high-intensity areas had risen to 5.2 per 1000 people by 2014, compared with an increase to 3.5 per 1000 in passive areas.
- Sexual offences in areas with stricter policies reduced from 0.15 to 0.14 per 1000 from 2009 to 2013 and, similar to violence, showed an increase again after 2013. In passive areas sexual crime rates remained stable at around 0.10 per 1000 throughout the study period.
- Public order offences also reduced from 4.6 to 2.9 per 1000 people between 2009 and 2013 in areas with high-intensity policies, compared to a reduction from 2.6 to 1.6 per 1000 in passive areas. The post-2013 increase seen for rates of violent and sexual offences was not evident.
- By comparison no trends were seen for financial fraud.
- Local authority areas with more intensive licensing policies tended to demonstrate higher levels of deprivation, population size, density of alcohol outlets and alcohol-related hospital admissions.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
The Home Office has issued guidance to accompany the Licensing Act 2003 which describes the actions local authorities can take where there are concerns about harmful drinking. This enables local authorities to identify areas where there may be particular risks, due to the density or type of licensed outlets, which may result in large crowds of people and harmful behaviours.
What are the implications?
There is considerable interest in developing strategies to improve the wellbeing and resilience of local communities and tackle social problems. This study offers an insight into the possible social benefit of policies to reduce alcohol availability, particularly in deprived areas.
Causation cannot be implied from the data and a reversal of the trend seen from 2013 onwards could be attributed to an increase in the recording of offenses. Nevertheless, the pattern will be of interest to local authorities considering the inclusion of health as criterion for assessing licensing applications.
Licensing policies could form part of wider initiatives to address the health and social impacts of alcohol, alongside other interventions such as education to encourage changes in behaviour, changes in policing, minimum pricing initiatives and the provision of alcohol support services.
Citation and Funding
De Vocht F, Heron J, Campbell R, et al. Testing the impact of local alcohol licencing policies on reported crime rates in England. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2016;71(2):137–145.
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Public Health Research.
De Vocht F, Heron J, Angus C, et al. Measurable effects of local alcohol licensing policies on population health in England. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2016;70(3):231-7.
Home Office. Revised guidance issued under section 182 of the Licensing Act 2003. London: Home Office; 2015.
Office for National Statistics. Crime Survey for England and Wales. Nature of crime tables – violence. Table 3.10. London: Office for National Statistics; 2016.
Public Health England. From evidence into action: opportunities to protect and improve the nation’s health. London: Public Health England; 2014.
Public Health England. Health matters: harmful drinking and alcohol dependence. London: Public Health England; 2016.
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