Deborah Orr: Shallow solutions to social exclusion

The drinks industry won't tackle the perception that drunkenness is normal
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The Independent Online

The tortuous contradictions at the heart of the Blair project have never been more evident. What could be more Blairite - in language and in spirit - than the inauguration of Alcohol Disorder Zones? Not that such places exist yet. They're merely a threat hanging over the pub and club industry. The threat, it is hoped, will force this lucrative industry sector to be a little more socially responsible when its executives are making their decisions.

The tortuous contradictions at the heart of the Blair project have never been more evident. What could be more Blairite - in language and in spirit - than the inauguration of Alcohol Disorder Zones? Not that such places exist yet. They're merely a threat hanging over the pub and club industry. The threat, it is hoped, will force this lucrative industry sector to be a little more socially responsible when its executives are making their decisions.

Alcohol Disorder Zones are a bit like anti-social behaviour orders for pubs. The idea is that in areas where a concentration of premises has led to fierce competition, binge-drinking - with its attendant behavioural tics - has flourished. Since no single establishment can necessarily be singled out for blame, the designation of an Alcohol Disorder Zone will impose sanctions on all the bars in a certain place.

The police will work with the local authority to define the geographical area. Those businesses within it will be given six to eight weeks to clean up their act before action is taken, mainly in the form of fines that would be used to fund policing, street cleaning, NHS costs and costs to the criminal justice system.

Yesterday, the first evidence that the strategy may bear some fruit puttered into view. More than half of Britain's 59,000 bars and pubs - all those which belong to the British Beer and Pub Association - announced that they were ending happy hours and refraining from offering other cheap drinks promotions.

This is a good result for the Government as it has for some time wanted such a step to be taken, but has been unwilling to take the "nannyish" step of actually imposing a ban. This way, the free market is given a nudge towards doing the social engineering and the Government is seen to be keeping its interventionist instincts in check.

A similar strategy can be seen in the policy - announced by Gordon Brown at the weekend - that promises to help first-time buyers, priced out of the market, to buy their homes. Once upon a time, a Labour government might have tackled its housing crisis by funding an expansion in the number of homes available for subsidised rental. Not this one though. That again would look awfully much like an anti-market intervention

Under this government, virtually no new council homes are being built. The figures now make the Thatcher years look like halcyon days for council-house provision. It is this shortage of housing and the consequent premium pricing in the private sector, more than anything else, that makes the lives of the least well-off extremely difficult.

But the Government has come to reply on a restricted housing supply as a motor for growing the economy. Now, as the market stagnates - and having squeezed the pips out of all possible first-time buyers - the Government is looking to kill two birds with one stone: bringing some new blood into the market as well as assisting individuals who may feel (quite rightly) excluded from the economic boom.

Again, it seems like a good compromise, one that maintains the freedom of the market while addressing some of the problems that freedom creates. But actually, both schemes are complex and bureaucratic, while shallow and impractical. Neither tackles the real problems that are causing the most acute difficulties. Both, in fact, may even end up exacerbating them.

Certainly, the withdrawal of happy hours will slow down some people's consumption of alcohol. However, since happy hours were often used by bars to entice people into them early in the evening, people used to cheap alcohol will in many cases simply supplement their evening's drinking at home before they go out.

Possibly, with the advent of 24-hour drinking, we'll be denied the spectacle of young people en masse staggering about and flashing their buttocks. Possibly they'll be sick on the premises more often than they're sick in the streets. Possibly they may save their urine for the little boys room, instead of the doorsteps of long-suffering residents. In these important, but cosmetic, ways things may get better.

But what the drinks industry won't do under self-regulation is tackle the perception that loss of control through drunkenness is normal and socially acceptable. Bars will still want to attract as many people as they can, and make as much money out of them as they can. The threat of finding themselves in a Alcohol Disorder Zone will make bars ever more vigilant about the individuals they see as troublemakers and want to keep off their premises. The drift away from a cultural consensus on acceptable behaviour will not be stopped. Instead, individuals seen as risky or feckless will be moved on to vent their aggression in a place which does not threaten the joint corporate profit.

This is a strategy that encourages the social exclusion of problematic individuals and drives them off to the no-go areas from which our nation's greatest miseries and follies emanate. This, when Labour were elected in 1997, was the dreadful disease of Thatcherism that its supporters hoped was going to be stopped in its ghastly tracks.

Likewise, New Labour's relentless pursuit of Thatcherite visions of ever increasing home-ownership creates similarly stark divisions between the haves and the have-nots. For the lucky individuals, who are selected for a generous dollop of home-aid from the government, the perks are enormous. It is perhaps canny of the government to leave the selection process for those fortunate people in the hands of banks and building societies though, for they will take the usual care to make sure that they lend money to the people who are lowest-risk rather than the most vulnerable.

The latter, poor sods, will find themselves even further away from securing a home they can feel comfortable in - unless there is some actual creation of housing supply by the Government.

There have been rumours - denied - that the social exclusion unit, once the Prime Minister's most lauded and beloved innovation, is to be closed down. This is unlikely, since the unit comes under the auspices of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who is seen by Mr Blair as an untouchable talisman. What is sure, though ,is that the words "social exclusion" do not trip off Mr Blair's tongue in the way they once did.

Perhaps this is because the New Labour project has turned out to be one that spends half of its time formulating policies that create social exclusion - and the other half formulating policies that mitigate some of the damage caused by the first ones. The sad result is, that while the group entirely excluded may get a little smaller, it also gets more cruelly, completely, and troublesomely isolated.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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