Reducing the Strength: United in pursuit of clarity

Off Licence News has followed the steady rise of the so-called Reducing the Strength schemes since the idea was first mooted and Ipswich council gained the dubious crown of being the pioneer.

Over the past 18 months, we have seen a meteoric rise in the number of councils adopting the scheme, and this week we are launching United to Protect Choice – a campaign to support retailers and their customers.

What’s been allowed to develop at local level, well away from the gaze of Westminster, is a patchwork of schemes proliferating at such a pace that councils are embarking on policy that is going entirely unchecked.

And, even though the Office of Fair Trading has said they could be breaking the law, councillors are carrying on regardless.

Without legal guidance, councils could be forcing retailers to unknowingly break competition law, a point which requires urgent clarity.

Should suppliers who have found themselves banished from shelves decide to mount a legal challenge that lands a council in the dock, councillors might regret concocting policy in haste.

 Now that more than 90 schemes exist or are imminent, we are seeing grave inconsistencies in approach. How can it be right or logical, for example, that you can walk into a pub and buy a pint of craft beer or cider, yet the shop across the road can’t sell it?

And, of course, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that where a licensing office has taken umbrage with a retailer selling a certain beer or cider, next week it could take issue with any given spirit or wine. Without intervention, what is currently being accepted as de facto regulation could spiral still further.

One answer could be to develop a framework for councils to work with. But first the trade must be clear about what these bans are trying to achieve in order to decide what measures are most likely to get a result and what actions can be taken within the law.

We need a grown-up debate. And, if disorder on the streets is something councils highlight, we need to discuss why measures, such as Alcohol Disorder Zones, which councillors fought so hard for, are failing.

Central to our campaign is that the trade should not simply be slapped with rules and frozen out of discussions where concerns over alcohol misuse arise. A partnership approach is needed. OLN is amassing evidence of readers’ experience, so please share your stories to help us champion the rights of responsible retailers and their customers.

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