This study examines the ‘how and why’ of Scottish alcohol policy implementation. A key finding which emerged from the study was the importance of accountability, particularly within the context of Scotland’s alcohol licensing regime. This article focuses on explaining how accountability mechanisms within Scotland’s licensing regime can present challenges to the effective implementation of alcohol policy. This is important because limited empirical research has examined how processes of accountability within alcohol licensing influence Scottish alcohol policy implementation and the related pursuit of public health goals. This study investigates this problem by undertaking a qualitative case study, using documentary analysis of national policy, legislation and guidance, and interview data with national and local alcohol policy implementation stakeholders.
Scottish Alcohol Licensing: Policy Context, Existing Research and Accountability
While the current Scottish approach to alcohol policy has been led by a Scottish National Party (SNP) government, there has been notable cross-party support for an alcohol strategy generally, providing a supportive political context for this issue. The context is complicated, however, by the Scottish Parliament and Government’s constrained capacity to act only on elements of alcohol regulation which have been devolved to them by the UK Government [10
]. Additionally, the past few years have seen substantive policy and political energy at a national level dedicated to the development and enactment of legislation for minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol [11
]. The Scottish Parliament passed MUP legislation in 2012, but was then forced to fight a protracted legal battle in European and UK courts against a challenge brought by the Scotch Whisky Association [12
]. The government’s case was eventually successful, and MUP was implemented in May 2018; however, in the meantime, other local processes of alcohol policy implementation were facing their own challenges. Within this context, this study was concerned with the ongoing implementation of the range of other alcohol policy measures in the Scottish alcohol strategy, including localized decision-making (e.g., licensing) by locally elected representatives and other stakeholders such as Alcohol and Drug Partnerships (ADPs).
Alcohol licensing is a key competency devolved to the Scottish Parliament from the UK Government in Westminster. The Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 (referred to here as LA 2005), helps to structure the legislative and regulatory framework for licensing and makes provisions for the regulation of the sale of alcohol and the premises on which alcohol is sold. LA 2005 gives local Licensing Boards (LBs) the responsibility for granting or rejecting alcohol licenses and thus helps to determine the availability of alcohol in local areas. The membership of these LBs is constituted of locally elected councillors.
Critically, LA 2005 contains five ‘licensing objectives’, and requires LBs to be concerned with each: (i) Preventing crime and disorder; (ii) securing public safety; (iii) preventing public nuisance; (iv) protecting and improving public health; and (v) protecting children from harm. There are intersections across all five objectives, and all potentially run counter to economic interests invested in alcohol sales. Of these, however, the implementation of the ‘public health objective’ is most relevant for this article, and it was primarily in relation to this objective and the policy context surrounding it that accountability emerged as an explanatory factor.
In the UK, Scotland is unique for including the protection of public health as a statutory objective in its licensing legislation [3
]. Indeed, the Scottish alcohol strategy identifies alcohol licensing as a key component of their ‘whole-population approach’ to combating alcohol-related harm, and it identifies licensing stakeholders as having a key role in helping to achieve the strategy’s public health goals.
The public health objective gives LBs a duty to assess the number and density of licensed premises in their area—a key measure if one is concerned with the availability of alcohol. This is operationalized in the concept of ‘overprovision’, which refers to an “assessment that there are too many licensed premises in a particular locality either in terms of the number of premises, the capacity of premises, the type of premises, or the size of a display area” (p. vi, [14
]).By distinguishing a given area as overprovided for, LBs have policy grounds to refuse new license applications in this area.
In Scotland, the assessment of whether overprovision exists happens during the development of each LB’s ‘Licensing Policy Statement’ which “sets out the general approach a Licensing Board will take to regulating the sale of alcohol and licensed premises in its area” (p. 2, [15
]). Importantly, the Statement must include a declaration of how each LB will progress towards each of the five licensing objectives, and LBs must make their licensing decisions with consideration to their Policy Statement [15
In terms of policy practice, alcohol licensing in Scotland occurs in local government, where local councils and their respective elected councillors have a certain level of autonomy from the Scottish Government. This is grounded in a Concordat signed by the Scottish Government in 2007 with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), which removed certain controls that the government had over councils [16
]. This has implications for LB members’ role in alcohol policy implementation, since their status as councillors means they are not automatically obligated to follow Scottish Government-identified priorities (e.g., to commit to a whole-population approach to tackling alcohol-related harm). However, this autonomy is complicated by the government’s parallel implementation of the National Performance Framework, an instrument first implemented in 2007 (and recently revised in 2018) which defines the government’s ‘purpose’ and overarching goals [17
]. As part of the aforementioned Concordat, local governments have to identify their local priorities through community planning and demonstrate how these contribute to the National Performance Framework [16
A range of organisations are stakeholders in Scottish alcohol policy enactment; these include the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, national governmental organisations concerned with health, and local entities such as local authorities, local partnerships, and local communities. The specific focus in this article is the relationships of LBs with both the Scottish Government and local Alcohol and Drug Partnerships (ADPs). The membership and responsibilities of each are shown in Table 1
Research on the interplay between local alcohol availability and health has proliferated in recent years in the UK, and this research demonstrates both that availability is associated with population harm [19
] and that policies to regulate availability can have a positive impact on population health [22
]. For example, Richardson et al. (2015) have demonstrated that in Scotland, a higher alcohol outlet density in a given neighbourhood is associated with higher alcohol-related hospitalisations and deaths [20
], while research from the broader UK context suggests stricter licensing enforcement to regulate alcohol availability may have a positive effect on alcohol-related hospitalisations [23
]. Note, however, that existing research on outlet density is not definitive in providing policy decision-makers with density thresholds that should not be exceeded. Therefore, licensing decisions informed by this work will remain interpretative. Further, while criticisms of this area of literature have noted limitations in terms of methodological approaches and scope [24
], as well as the currently inability to demonstrate causality [25
], existing research indicates the importance of local licensing decision-making on population health outcomes.
In addition to the association between alcohol availability and harm, research has also studied the licensing policy context [13
] and different aspects of licensing processes. In the Scottish context, an in-depth evaluation of the implementation of LA 2005, an evaluation which found a number of key challenges that prevented effective implementation of this legislation [14
]. These included a lack of updated implementation guidance and the inconsistent manner in which national and local data was being collected [14
An additional key issue evident in the literature has been the interplay of evidence used within licensing processes. In particular, research has suggested that public health evidence has limited impact on licensing decision-making, and LB members more often rely on their own values and beliefs, or anecdotes from their constituencies, to inform their decisions [27
]. Further, that while public health interviewees in this study perceived themselves to be approaching their work with a ‘whole-population approach,’ the same perspective was not always adopted by other licensing stakeholders (i.e., LB members) [27
]. These results have highlighted a possible tension between the perspectives, goals, and priorities among different licensing stakeholders.
While the above research contributes to an understanding of licensing processes, there remains a limited body of empirical research in the UK and Scottish contexts reporting exactly how key stakeholders are being held accountable for their role in effectively implementing licensing policy or how the accountability regime(s) surrounding licensing influence alcohol policy implementation. Indeed, recent work by Fitzgerald and colleagues [28
] is unique in its explicit inclusion of accountability as a theme in their analysis of Scottish licensing. Their research reported (i) a lack of mechanisms available to influence the councillors who were members of local LBs and (ii) that LB convenors and licensing clerks had the power to shape a given LB’s attitude towards public health. Further, that the latter situation sometimes resulted in challenges to local public health progress and variations across local areas in terms of how the public health objective was perceived and implemented. As will be shown in the results and discussion sections, this article helps to reaffirm and build upon those authors’ work.
Overall, however, specific in-depth inquiries into accountability in alcohol policy implementation, remain limited, and findings are not linked to existing accountability literature, a substantive area of research from which theoretical and empirical lessons may be drawn. While literature on alcohol policy implementation studies have sometimes discussed accountability-related issues (e.g., in relation to power in licensing processes [28
], the importance of clearly establishing responsibility for particular interventions [29
], or policy stakeholders’ compliance with and navigation of relevant alcohol legislation [14
]), a notable gap in published research exists which draws explicitly upon lessons from accountability scholarship to empirically examine alcohol policy implementation processes. Given the emergence in this research of accountability as an explanatory factor influencing implementation of Scottish licensing policy, this article seeks to contribute understanding to this gap.
Indeed, the issue of accountability, a concept used extensively (albeit often somewhat opaquely) in public discourse, is somewhat rarely empirically examined within broader health policy implementation research. In a literature review of empirical health policy implementation studies conducted for the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre [31
], only a small number of empirical articles explicitly linked accountability and health policy implementation processes (e.g., Kelly et al. [32
] and O’Toole et al. [33
]). This is despite authors within public policy and implementation literature identifying accountability as being fundamental to policy implementation. For example, Jan-Erik Lane [34
] has written that the implementation gap between policy expectations and outcomes is inherently related to accountability.
The current paper is situated in the context of the existing regulatory and accountability framework for licensing stakeholders—LBs in particular. Table 2
outlines the relevant provisions regarding accountability of LBs as stated in existing legislation.
In relation to this legal framework and the policy context described above, this article seeks to address the existing knowledge gap at the intersection of Scottish alcohol policy implementation, licensing, and accountability. It asks whether the ways LBs are held accountable function to support implementation processes and corresponding public health goals in the context of Scotland’s national alcohol strategy. Towards this aim, this article examines how LBs, as administrative and quasi-judicial entities that exist beyond the traditional health arena, can have important impacts on implementation processes and subsequent health policy outcomes.