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Does Newcastle have a problem with Alcohol?

May 18, 2012

Speech to the Manchester Conference on Minimum Pricing

Today I want to talk to you about what the nature of that problem and what Newcastle City Council is doing about it.

I also want to talk about what we want from Government and I want to get us all thinking about some of the wider issues around alcohol and its misuse. First of all I want you to close your eyes and think about Newcastle. What do you think of? You might conjure up the black and white of Newcastle United, you might think of the Tyne Bridge, Newcastle Brown Ale, Paul Gascoigne, Cheryl Cole, or even Ant or Dec. The chances are some of you might have though of that Geordie Shore cliche, the under-dressed lads and lasses enjoying themselves in the bars and clubs of the Bigg Market.

The hard-working, hard-drinking culture that has become a favourite with tabloid newspaper editors and fans of ‘structured reality’. The Party City. And for a while, we – by which I mean the decision makers in my city – were tolerant of, but never entirely comfortable with, that tag. After all, the ‘night-time economy’ bought us jobs and a national ‘brand’, it even helped us regenerate parts of our city centre.Night out Newcastle

There was the occasional piece of bad publicity – remember those famous drink all you can for 50p offers? – but a night out in Newcastle was still an experience, something to be ticked off the bucket list. It is only recently that we’ve begun to wake up to the real impact of being the Party City and deconstruct some of the myths. It’s only recently that we’ve steered the debate away from city centre issues and started to look at the real problem, alcohol in the home – the off trade not the on trade.

Two in every five North Easterners who drink, pre-load, they buy cheap alcohol from supermarkets and off-licenses and drink before a night out. More than one in four of our 18-24 year olds, preload regularly or always on a night out. And it’s only recently that we’ve started to have an honest and frank debate about drink and the enormous health, social, environmental and health damage it causes. For example, in Newcastle we know that alcohol is a contributory factor in domestic violence, violence that can lead to a child becoming ‘looked after’.

The rough cost to us of looking after a young person in one of our own children’s homes is £1,900 per week and our numbers of looked after children are rising rapidly. And it’s only recently that, working with our partners at Balance, the UK’s first alcohol office, we’ve started to look hard at issues like affordability and accessibility of alcohol particularly amongst the young. But let’s start with a few cold, hard facts about Newcastle and the North East’s relationship with alcohol.

The North East has the highest rate of alcohol related deaths in England. Alcohol costs the region up to £1.3bn each year, that’s more than £400 pounds per person. In my city it costs £512 for every man woman and child living in Newcastle, that’s the highest in the North East. There was a 403 per cent rise in the numbers of 30-34 year olds admitted into the region’s hospitals with alcoholic liver disease between 2003 and 2010. Just imagine if that was a 403 per cent rise in fatalities through road accidents, we’d be asking serious questions. 26 per cent of our 11-15 year-olds have admitted drinking alcohol in the last week and at levels way exceeding the adult low risk limits.

We need to wake up to the fact that we are in the middle of an alcohol crisis and that new approaches are needed. We need to do to alcohol what we worked so hard to do to tobacco. Let’s start with the legal framework we operate in.

The Licensing Act

The licensing act is simply not ‘fit for purpose’. It is framed in the context of managing problems and the interest of real people in real communities are often overlooked. It doesn’t look at the thorny issue of accessibility, it does nothing to restrict numbers of off-licences or help us regulate the ones we have. How can if be right for example that alcohol is sold at nine in the morning and Licensing Authorities find this difficult to prevent from happening? It’s time to restack the odds in favour of local people and local communities and give us the powers to make a difference in our communities. It also fails to take account of the health effects of alcohol.

I’d like to be able to tell a hearing about the number of ambulance pick ups or incidents of liver disease in a ward when discussing whether a new off licence should open. I’ve lost track of the number of times I lost licensing hearings to well equipped barristers who make all sorts of complex arguments. The current system is designed for an industry that can hire well paid legal advisors rather than for the people who their products affect. Reframe the licensing act, unbind our hands to tackle problems in our local communities, and we’ll do the rest.

We know what the problems are, we just need the tools to do the job. The act also fails to address the accessibility of alcohol. It should make sure that wines, spirits and beers are not just everyday items available within sight of the children’s DVDs or washing powder. It should make sure that alcohol is only sold in a particular area of the shop and drink is only sold at certain times of the day.

We should also be able to tackle the on-trade by refusing an application on grounds of cumulative impact – the way we can do with the on-trade. People in the Elswick area of my city have told us that there are far too many off licences and this leads to anti-social behaviour. Shockingly, we’ve had to explain to them that there’s little we can do about it because we don’t have enough powers to regulate the ones we have or even ensure through the planning process that no more are allowed to open.

I want it to be easier for us to close a place down if it generates anti-social behaviour without fear or legal comeback. And I want senior officers to be listen more to their beat officers about the effect alcohol is having on their communities and translate that into action. Somehow there is a disconnect between police officers daily experience of dealing with alcohol related crime and the messages given out by their senior colleagues at force HQ.


Like so called ‘big tobacco’, the alcohol industry is a powerful and sophisticated opponent. It’s current strategy depends on making alcohol an aspirational product – strongly linked to physical attraction and having a good time. It will fight hard against any attempt to ‘denormalise’ alcohol. And it has it’s friends in high places, friends of all political colours, reached all too easy by organisations like the Portman Group and DrinkAware as well as a host of trade associations, whose central message is that education, not regulation is key. The industry’s corporate social responsibility message needs to be challenged and deconstructed.

We need to tackle advertising as a priority. Newcastle City Council fully supports and endorses Balance’s successful Sam Sees campaign that raised awareness about how much alcohol advertising is seen by young people on a daily basis. Alcohol Concern recently monitored television advertising and found there was a rising number of beer adverts shown from 3pm to 5pm, coinciding with the time children get home from school. That’s why we need an alcohol advertising watershed to protect our young people from the drinks industry message. And we need to make sure that we’re aware of new methods of reaching people. In 2009 online alcohol advertising expenditure overtook television expenditure for the first time. There is growing evidence that the drinks industry is using websites like Facebook and Spotify, popular with the young, to drum up interest online.

Minimum Unit Pricing

Today I’m going to follow the Scottish model and call for a 50p minimum unit price for alcohol, ten pence above the figure quoted in the Government’s recent consulation. The evidence for the benefits is compelling. Research from the School of Health Related Research at Sheffield University found that:

  • Deaths from alcohol related causes would be cut by more than a quarter
  • It would reduce the number of crimes by 46,000
  • Reduce hospital admissions by almost 100,000
  • Save the county an estimated £1billion a year, and that’s a conservative estimate.


I’ve spoken from a Newcastle and North East perspective, but I know that many of the problems I’ve described are common to many British cities. We all allowed the party city ‘city centre’ narrative to distract us from addressing where the problems are. I started off by saying that Newcastle has an alcohol problem, but in many ways we are facing the same challenges. That’s why we need a united position to Government and why we need them to hold true to the localism agenda and give us the tools so that our communities can begin to solve what is a nothing short of national public health scandal.

My message is clear:

  • Regulation – Redraw the licensing act to make it less industry-friendly and more in the interests of the communities we want to make healthier and safer. Make it easier for people like me to address the shocking toll that alcohol is having on the people I represent and give those people a real role in coming up with solutions.
  • Tackling desirability – Take on the Drinks Industry’s corporate social responsibility engine and make sure that regulation, not education, is the message that those in power hear.
  • Minimum Pricing – Let’s call for a 50 pence minimum unit price and be robust about its public health advantages and the difference it will make

And whilst we argue over the detail of minimum pricing or watersheds for alcohol advertising, let’s not forget that we have to look at the root of the problem. Alcohol and its abuse starts with one person. Many of us in this room today will know or may have known someone who has or had a problem with alcohol. It is often a personal tragedy brought on by a variety of complex and hard-to-solve factors. But we do need to address the wider issues in society that we know lead people to seek solace in alcohol. We need to raise people’s aspirations, making them feel they belong to a wider society that respects what they have to offer and cares about what they have to say.

People with no hope, no escape and no future can turn to alcohol to get through the day or to forget about a troubled past. If we’re going to really tackle the issue of alcohol misuse we put equality of opportunity and of outcome at the heart of everything we do. That’s the massive challenge all of us, regardless of our role or political colour, face in the years ahead.

Discuss this on our topic wall on the Let’s talk Newcastle online website.

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