When pubs and clubs that previously opened until after midnight are made to close or stop serving alcohol earlier, the number of assaults and injuries falls. That is the message from several Australian cities. In Newcastle, it was found that the early closures also led to an increase in the number of licensed premises and the diversification of business in the area. What does this mean for Scotland, where 50 per cent of violent crime is alcohol-related?

In Scotland, licensing boards (independent committees of local councillors) make decisions about which premises may sell alcohol. Their decisions are guided by five ‘licensing objectives’ set out in national legislation, one of which – ‘protecting and improving public health’ – is unique globally. The local licensing board sets out its policy every four years, including standard trading hours (earliest opening and latest closing times). Premises seeking a licence to sell alcohol must set out in their application the hours in which they intend to operate.

Standard licensing hours for off-licences in Scotland are almost universally 10am to 10pm, but they vary for ‘on-licence’ premises i.e. pubs, clubs, restaurants. In West Dunbartonshire, the standard closing hours for on-licences are midnight Sunday to Thursday and 1am on Fridays and Saturdays. Any premises applying to close later must demonstrate “that the additional hours requested are necessary in the circumstances”. In Dundee, there are differing (and later) standard closing times for different on-licence premises e.g. 3am for nightclubs. Premises applying to trade later have “to convince the board that there are exceptional circumstances to justify this and that there would be no conflict with the licensing objectives”.

There have been very few attempts by Scottish licensing boards to introduce earlier closing times, despite strong evidence that earlier closing after midnight would contribute to protecting public health and safety. On the contrary, at least two areas have consulted on extending standard licensing hours. Despite considerable opposition, the extension went ahead in Dundee and was abandoned in Glasgow.

Boards must also assess whether any part of their area is ‘overprovided’ with licensed premises. This assessment forms part of their licensing policy and creates a presumption against granting any new licences in any overprovided areas.

A legal amendment in 2015 should give boards even more flexibility to manage hours of trade in areas with high levels of assaults or other crimes.

Each licensing board would have to assess and judge whether they need and want to reduce alcohol-related harms in their area or parts of their areas and how they wish to do so, with trading hours looking like a very promising option. But it is a local decision that would presumably weigh up several factors and any policy changes should also be fully evaluated in the Scottish context. Recent case law demonstrates that the local licensing policy and overprovision assessment are critical in giving licensing boards the power to be proactive, which they will need if they wish to emulate the successful initiatives in Australia.

Dr Niamh Fitzgerald is Senior Lecturer in Alcohol Studies at the University of Stirling.