Councils are demanding the power to block new clubs, pubs and off-licences on public health grounds, as communities blighted by alcoholism become overrun by licensed premises.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said that "nonsensical" rules which force councillors to ignore advice from public health experts when considering licensing applications should be scrapped.
The problem of "Booze Street Britain" has been highlighted by figures from Salford, Greater Manchester, showing that in one area of the city, 77 premises have been approved to sell alcohol within a single kilometre.
Responsibilities for public health – including such issues as encouraging healthy lifestyles, cutting smoking and excessive use of alcohol – were handed to local authorities last year, along with ringfenced annual grants of £2.7bn.
However, the LGA said that licensing laws which did not recognise local health concerns made a mockery of councils' responsibilities to their populations, and called on the Government to update the Licensing Act.
The current rules mean that, while councils can receive advice from local health experts and look at evidence including ambulance call-out data and hospital admissions, they must ignore it when making licensing decisions. In theory, they would leave themselves open to prosecution if they reject a licence on public health grounds.
In many parts of the country, the rules have led to large numbers of off-licences opening up within yards of one another, often selling cheap alcohol in poorer urban areas.
In Salford, Mayor Ian Stewart has campaigned for public health to be taken into account in licensing applications. Councillor Val Burgoyne, chair of Salford Council's health and well-being committee, told The Independent on Sunday that rows of shops selling cheap alcohol had led to increased drinking, particularly among underage teenagers.
"If they can't get it at one, they will go on to another. If you have several in a row, they'll keep trying and somewhere they're going to get it," she said. "We've got to think of the health of our young people and the entire population and we want to get the support from the Government for this."
Excessive alcohol consumption is estimated to cost the NHS about £3.5bn a year, and extra costs could fall on councils under plans to integrate the cost of health and social care. New figures released last week showed that 8,367 deaths were caused by alcohol in the UK in 2012 – up by 8 per cent since 2002.
Councillor Katie Ward said that the Government had been right to shift responsibility for public health to a local level, but warned that licensing rules were preventing communities from lowering alcohol consumption. "Local health experts have a vital role to play in advising councils on the potential impacts of an application to open new licensed premises," she said. "That makes it even more nonsensical that councils are forced to ignore their advice when considering additional licences they know could be a health hazard."
Rosanna O'Connor, the director of alcohol and drugs at Public Health England (PHE), said: "Harmful use of alcohol is a major public health problem in England, and more action is needed at national and local level to tackle it. PHE will be issuing guidance to support local authorities on making the best use of health data in their licensing decisions."
Home Office minister Norman Baker said last night: "We have not ruled out local authorities considering health impacts as part of the licensing process. The alcohol industry needs to accept there are legitimate concerns and seek to address these rather more so than it has done so far."Reuse content