British Pub Hours and Crime

The Economist website (only subscribers can read the article) has an article dated January 6 that illustrates nicely the interplay between security trade-offs and economic agendas.

In the 1990s, local councils were scratching around for ideas about to how to revive Britain’s inner cities. Part of the problem was that the cities were dead after their few remaining high-street shops had shut in the evening. Bringing night-life back, it was felt, would bring back young people, and the cheerful social and economic activity they would attract would revive depressed urban areas. The “24-hour city” thus became the motto of every forward-thinking local authority.

For councils to fulfil their plans, Britain’s antiquated drinking laws needed to be liberalised. That has been happening, in stages. The liberalisation culminates in 24-hour drinking licences….

This has worked: “As an urban redevelopment policy, the liberalisation has been tremendously successful. Cities which once relied on a few desultory pubs for entertainment now have centres thumping with activity from early evening all through the night.”

On the other hand, the change comes with a cost. “That is probably why, when crime as a whole has fallen since the late 1990s, violent crime has gone up; and it is certainly why the police have joined the doctors in opposing the 24-hour licences.”

This is all perfectly reasonable. All security is a trade-off, and a community should be able to trade off the economic benefits of a revitalized urban center with the economic costs of an increased police force. Maybe they can issue 24-hour licenses to only a few pubs. Or maybe they can issue 22-hour licenses, or licenses for some other number of hours. Certainly there is a solution that balances the two issues.

But the organization that has to pay the security costs for the program (the police) is not the same as the organization that reaps the benefits (the local governments).

Over the past hundred years, central government’s thirst for power has weakened the local authorities. As a result, policing, which should be a local issue, is largely paid for by central government. So councils, who are largely responsible for licensing, do not pay for the negative consequences of liberalisation.

The result is that the local councils don’t care about the police costs, and consequently make bad security trade-offs.

Posted on January 12, 2005 at 9:01 AM31 Comments


Colum Mylod January 12, 2005 9:15 AM

Your conclusion is not exactly true. Firstly police costs make up a considerable part of local residents’ hated council tax bills so that local councils do feel pain if police costs rise. Secondly it is the self same central government in its disputed wisdom which pushes for more local revenue in the shape of business taxes (on those 24hr pubs) by pinching the allowances from the centre to the locals. In other words it’s a mess caused as much by weakened local councils as control-freak central govt.

David Pashley January 12, 2005 10:33 AM

The problem with British licensing laws as they stand is that pub chuck everyone out at 11pm and clubs close at 1am or 2am, which means you have hundreds of drunk people all out on the street at the same time, looking for taxis or takeaways. There are going to be arguments and violence. The argument for more liberal licensing is that people will leave clubs at more staggered times, resulting in less drunk people out on the streets at the same time.

Bill Godfrey January 12, 2005 10:41 AM

With the 11PM closing time, there is a concentration of drunks from 11:00 to 11:30. People know not to go out near a pub during that time.

No, I’ve no idea what point I’m making either. Enjoy.

piglet January 12, 2005 11:06 AM

I don’t see the security argument against longer pub hours. Is it because Britons are drinking more now and drunken youngster are committing more crimes? Maybe but we all know that prohibition isn’t exactly good for security either. I agree with David, one big problem is when all the pubs are closing at the same time. This is an argument for liberalisation, not against. This reminds me of a the clever police strategy adopted last year at a big open air festival (150000 people) in Quebec City. Instead of breaking up the festival at a given hour, they continued all night. They allowed festival-goers to sleep on the site (which, strictly speaking, is forbidden). They didn’t police aggressively. There had been riots in previous years. This time, no trouble, very few minor incidents.

Tony January 12, 2005 11:17 AM

Getting both sides to pay their respective costs so both sides come out ahead is something that’s a problem for many Pareto-superior outcomes that economists dream about. (Free trade and how the labor unions should be reimbursed being a somewhat larger example of this).

But in this case, I find it hard to believe that “the local government doesn’t care”. Police costs are just one aspect you mention, of the realer cost of “more crime and disorderly behavior” which local governments are proverbial for paying attention to, even overreacting to. No, they might not care enough, but that’s rather relative, and probably not the problem (compared to an unwillingness to look at security as a trade off, one that’s not even always worth it).

Davi Ottenheimer January 12, 2005 11:55 AM

As long as we are thinking about this in terms of shifting economics and pub culture, I would want to ask:

1) If there is a “closing time”, should the govt address the large number of congregating drunks competing for limited food and transportation? In other words, does it make sense to subsidize resources to reduce the cost of violent disputes over scarcity? Or even to create favorable market conditions to stimulate growth and reduce scarcity?

2) Are there other factors that contribute to pub violence that can be addressed in a cost-effective fashion: access routes, ventilation, lighting, staffing, crowding, staff training, etc?

Much of what has been said above seems to point in this direction. Perhaps changing to 24 hours reduces some violence, but it doesn’t seem to map directly to the varied causes of violence.

As an aside, when I lived in London I regularly witnessed and heard about pub-fights involving glass weapons. More than any other bars/pubs in the world I have ever frequented, violence in British pubs seemed to involve broken glass or bottle. However, I never heard anyone suggesting that pint glasses and bottles should be replaced with plastic cups to reduce risk. I also regularly witnessed and heard about fighting as a way for young men to release frustration. If someone fell in a fight, the half a pub might empty so people could get a few potshots on the loser.

Perhaps Britons would refuse to drink from what other people around the world consider standard party-ware. But as long as Londoners seem to be opening late-night coffee/bakery shops instead of pubs and chiperies, then perhaps an economic justification will also eventually rise for safer pubs and pubware…which I think would reduce the effects of violence as much if not more than longer hours.

piglet January 12, 2005 1:47 PM

Now we are discussing whether “changing to 24 hours reduces some violence”, but the assumption of the Economist article is that it increases violence. Why?

Anonymous January 12, 2005 1:50 PM

Perhaps a staggered licencing?

11pm closing comes with the standard liquor license. Each additional hour costs 15% extra.

Davi Ottenheimer January 12, 2005 6:11 PM

The core of the issue is really whether binge drinking is part of a culture, as opposed to casual drinking, and secondly whether specific conditions precipitate drunken violence.

Yes, the idea that extending pub-hours will suddenly turn Brits into wine-sipping pacifists obviously is pure fantasy. But a more moderate interpretation might be fair, that staggering or selectively closing venues, in combination with detective and preventative controls around violent offenders, might actually reduce overall violence while allowing local night-life to flourish.

I guess if you ask the Italians, though, it is the very nature of “Anglo-Saxon” drink culture that is to blame for an increase in their urban night violence:

“In Rome this summer, emergency regulations were used to crack down on violence after dark, mainly around the central market square of Campo de’ Fiori. The off-licence sale of alcohol was banned after 10pm and the sale of all beverages in bottles or glasses was stopped.”

As an aside, the Streets (Original Pirate Material Album) sing a song about security trade-offs that is slightly related to this issue. They highlight the legal binge drinker culture and its violent tendencies compared to pacifistic illegal users of marijuana.

dont fear the penguins January 13, 2005 2:44 AM

i live in london.. where i have no problem obtaining alcohol at any hour of the day or night.. depending on whereabouts in london i am. not sure about my point.

Pau Garcia i Quiles January 13, 2005 6:07 AM

I live in Spain, where pubs are open from 23.00 to 3.30, and discos from 23.00 to 7.00, so I think I know something about that 24-hour of drinking stuff…

Most people here likes to meet at some friend’s place or a park, buy lots of alcohol (whisky, rum, martini, etc) and Cola and drink. As a result, lots of young people were getting drunk very soon (maybe at 00.00 they were already drunk!)

Two years ago the Government changed law and now after 22.00 you can only buy alcoholic drinks in pubs and discos. As many people used to buy alcohol as they needed (01.00: “hey, whisky is over, let’s buy two more bottles”) or in the last minute (23.00: “what about going to David’s and have some drink? OK, let’s go to buy two or three rum bottles”), alcohol consumption amongst young people decreased dramatically. Now we have less problems with young drunk people (and less violence caused by them, becasue believe me, they can get actually violent).

Buy that’s not the full story. The second part is better: in Spain you are considered an adult when you are 18 years old. The fact is lots of 18 y-o people are as kids as 16 y-o people, so now lots of discos and pubs only allow entrance to people older than 21 or 22. The equation is simple: 18 to 20 years old people spend few money but lots of problems, so they are not worth the pain.

hardened drinker January 13, 2005 7:08 AM

the licensing discussed is English rather than British – Scottish drinking hours are regulated by local authorities, and 12pm is the usual throwing out time.
Local authorities have more than “24 hour city” aspirations as rationale for licensing changes. A senior local authority law officer I knew explained the desire that local authorities and police forces had for staggering pub closure times as paramount. Everyone leaving at the same time stretches the blue line too thinly, and maximizes annoyance for local residents.

Andy January 13, 2005 6:15 PM

The nature of pubs have changed. Fewer seats, louder music, drinks on offer to cram people in. When it’s 5 deep at the bar with 2 bar staff, I’m not surprised there’s violence.

Longer opening hours would change drinking habits. My cousins live in Northern Ireland (where more places stay open late), and they go out later, and drink more steadily. I found I adapted to do the same whenever I was in Paris. It could be effective, and staggered times must be useful.

However, lets also look at having more seating in pubs, quieter music, and quit targetting the young with alcoholic soda drinks. Sure, it’ll drive up costs – pass those to the consumer. They’ll drink less.

A cultural change is what’s really needed. In Wellington, although places were open later for booze, it was also possible to get a coffee until 11pm. I liked that.

piglet January 14, 2005 2:28 PM

One thing I definitely didn’t like about British pub culture when I was staying on Yorkshire for a couple of months was that there was nothing to eat in the pubs. If a pub had a kitchen at all, it closed 7 pm sharp and there was not so much as a sandwich to get between the teeth after that hour. It wouldn’t suprise me if some people compensate the lack of food by drinking more.

Dave Wood January 14, 2005 6:53 PM

In defense of the food – British pubs vary from a lot on the quality and service times for food. Several I know do serve excellent and inexpensive food until 9 and even 10 PM (independent and “chain” owned).

A friend of mine is a copper and so has to deal with the reality of the current laws. He’s looking forward to the opening hours spreading out – it’s mayhem at 11 and they can’t be everywhere at once.

In Brighton (south coast of England) we have somehow managed to hang on to a lot of the old “community” pubs tucked away in the residential back streets. Having them kick out later may be impractical… although their customers may not be the type to be fighting of course!

Overall though my opinion is that this is a salve and that a change in culture is needed away from the idea that the only way to have a good night is to get so drunk you can’t even recall it. That may not be amenable to being prodded by a market driven stick.

What kind of stick it might be amenable to being prodded by though… ?

piglet January 17, 2005 11:09 AM

I think that we have all been misguided. With a little distance, it becomes obvious that the author of that Economist article made the mistake of confounding correlation and causation. A lot of things changed during the 1990s that may have caused the increase in violence. Why blame pub liberalisation? Because of the misanthropic belief that whenever people are given more freedom, they will behave badly? Come on. This is just fearmongering the police and other authoritarian institutions like to spread. We know it isn’t that simple. Maybe liberalisation is to blame but in a different sense. Economic liberalisation in Britain and elsewhere has brought more competition, more pressure on the individual, more social division, more greed and selfishness (at least, some are saying so). The increase in violence could much more plausibly be blamed on this social transformation than on the extension of pub hours. And maybe the Economist preferred to talk about the latter instead of debating the social cost of its preferred economic doctrine. That would make a lot of sense…

Davi Ottenheimer January 17, 2005 2:03 PM

Nice point Piglet. In America, statisticians have documented that crime goes up whenever ice cream consumption increases. Fair weather is the cause of both, I would guess, rather than a side-effect of ice-cream ingredients, a truck’s melodies, etc.

Back to the “security trade-offs” that Bruce started us with, I have found mention in a few places that British pub-hours might have started in 1914 when Wartime (WWI) licensing laws forced drinking premises to close early. It was August of that year the military and naval authorities were granted the power to restict opening hours for pubs.

Was it a matter of national security?

The situation and timing brings to mind the American “Anti-Saloon League” of the early 1900s that led to the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Apparently one of the concerns of the League was that a “culture of drink was spreading”, which they attributed in part to “continuing immigration from Europe”.

Groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union apparently raised massive sums of money ($500K in 1918) to convince communities to wage a “righteous” victory against brewers by passing referendums to prohibit the sale of alchohol altogether. I think, in the subsequent years, these communities might have felt like they also made a bad security trade-off.

Paul January 18, 2005 5:11 AM

Piglet – I haven’t checked the actual laws, but it’s my understanding that a place here can only get a late licence (i.e. to open/serve after 11pm) if they also serve food.

This does lead to slightly odd situations – for example, a club with a kettle and some pot noodles behind the bar. I’d debate whether that’s food, but it seems to be allowed. 😉 Looks a bit out of place amongst the bottles though…

Ian G Batten January 19, 2005 7:30 AM

The introduction of licensing laws during
WW1 was because of concerns about people
making munitions being drunk. The laws then had
traction after the war because temperance
was seen, at the time, as a liberal measure
to protect the poor from the demon drink
(remember, progressives supported both
eugenics and prohibition).


Gordonjcp January 19, 2005 8:05 AM

This article is, as someone has already pointed out, discussing English laws, which do not apply to the UK as a whole. In Scotland pubs often close at midnight or 1am. Consequently people spread their drinking over a longer period. In England, where many pubs shut as early as 10pm, people drink a lot very quickly, then decide to go off to a nightclub. In Scotland, by 10pm a lot of people are only just going out…

Richi Jennings January 20, 2005 10:48 AM

The point isn’t that the change in the law does away with mandated closing times, but that it allows the community (ie, local government) to decide closing times if it wishes. So, a community can “trade off the economic benefits … with the economic costs”.

In addition, local government does pay for policing, so local councils do care about the police costs.


piglet January 21, 2005 9:23 AM

Look at that:

“Last minute tweaks to the government’s relaxation of licensing laws will see disorderly pubs pay a levy for policing, a huge hike in the costs of pub licences and on-the-spot fines and banning orders for binge drinkers.

The moves, aimed at reassuring the public that late night opening will not cause an epidemic of city centre violence, come in the wake of a concerted campaign by the Daily Mail, backed by some police officers and medical experts, against liberalising the UK’s antiquated pub opening hours.”
That’s from today’s Guardian (,11026,1395549,00.html)
I thought pub opening hours have already been liberalised and now this?

piglet January 21, 2005 9:53 AM

“This is an age-old discourse. Is Britain uniquely uncouth in our filthy drinking habits, or do our peculiarly restrictive laws cause the desperate drink-to-get-drunk-quick mentality? Why, oh why, can’t we be more Italian? Take away the urgency and mystery, and maybe we could all tipple a little nip in the coffee without making a fetish of alcohol. It was a reasonable proposition. After all, why are we – and our Viking neighbours to the north – such drunken sots compared to the Mediterraneans?”,11026,1395435,00.html

David January 21, 2005 11:00 AM

Piglet, I see your point about the urgency and mystery, although I don’t believe that the English are unique in the way of their “filthy drinking habits.” I have seen a lot of that in the US, and I believe that it is cultural. Drinking is forbidden to youth, and most parents don’t try to educate their children on how to drink responsibly. This leads to underaged kids sneaking around drinking, with the goal to get totally plastered. Once this type of drinking habit is learned, many can’t unlearn it and continue to binge drink through their adult life.

A little more on topic: staggering the closing hours of pubs may not help and may even make things worse. When people are out drinking and one establishment closes, they are likely to go to another one that is open. The effect of this would be to concentrate the heavy drinkers in a smaller number of pubs. So if the extended drinking hours are indeed the cause of increased crime and not just related to it this could actually make the problem worse. The possible benefit to this is that the police would be able to shift their locations to near the next-to-close establishments and possibly nip some problems in the bud before they get too out of control.

piglet January 21, 2005 3:13 PM

David, I didn’t choose those words, that’s from a Guardian opinion piece. And here’s more:

“That is why the government has been so rattled by the Mail’s sudden discovery that many of Britain’s city centres descend into puke-splattered arenas of booze-fuelled fighting at pub closing time – two years after the bill relaxing licensing laws was actually passed.

Last week the paper launched its “Say no to 24-hour pubs” campaign, with numerous police chiefs, medical experts and even pub-chain bosses coming out in favour of delaying the legislation.

Closer examination reveals that no pub has expressed an interest in staying open the full 24 hours the bill allows for, the medical establishment is concerned about binge drinking itself rather than pub opening hours and the police and local councils only want to know who would pay for extra policing. However, that has not stopped a head of steam building behind the campaign – with the Tories, again, following rather than leading.

Last week the PM was forced to defend the licensing changes as allowing civilised people to have a drink after a movie or the theatre, rather than opening the door to 24-hour Sodom and Gomorrah, but a behind the scenes turf war ensued between Downing Street, the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport over finessing the bill’s implementation – with today’s consultation paper as the result.” (,11026,1395805,00.html)

Wow, it’s really a big discussion. What I gather from this is that the conservative press is at least exaggerating the concerns about pub liberalisation to score against the government. Another example of a security discourse with a hidden agenda. But hey, what do I know about the Britons? 😉

John David Galt January 21, 2005 11:37 PM

The assumption that the increase in Britain’s violent crime rate is related to longer pub hours should be examined critically. I can think of several other possible reasons, especially the recent total ban on guns (which has led to a big increase in gun crime, since the bad guys still have theirs and now know their victims won’t). Are the new crimes concentrated around pubs? At night?

I also would rather there were no closing time so that those who have had a few too many can stay put until they sober up.

The notion of a drinking license has its attractions, but is just another way for government to exercise too much control over people’s lives. A bouncer who has the guts to ban belligerent people from his establishment will do the same job better, especially if they exchange data on people to exclude. Perhaps if each bar owner had to directly pay the cost of policing situations arising out of his customers’ behavior, they’d have the incentive to do this job right.

LastOrders January 26, 2005 12:00 PM

Perhaps the revolutionary idea of letting pubs open when they want, letting people drink when they want, and policing the troublemakers (pubs & drunks) properly might work.

Who knows, punishing bad behaviour, rather than pre-emptive collective punishment might even result in a change of culture.

carla and anna February 2, 2005 4:12 AM

we think that 24 hour pubs should be legalised as it gives people chance to enjoy themselfs more without worrying when they pubs will close. also it will stop crime as people at about 2-3 will not be walking home and getting into fights. x x x

Des Ignator December 16, 2005 7:29 AM

To stop alcohol related violence / vandalism / and general bad behaviour associated with late night venues is not an easy task, and can only be lessened, never stopped. There is not one solution but many, all as important as the first.

Have the larger Venues close earlier. This helps the local Police and their associated costs, control the movement of peaple. As the night progresses, numbers naturally decrease anyway. The people who really want to party hard, and stay out late and dance, probably aren’t so much the drinkers anyway.

People do bad things when they imagine that they can’t be seen. Night is the cover they need. Therefore in Australia putting revellers onto the street at 6am
when its light isn’t as bad as it seems. The Vanalism is normally done by the ones going home at 3am. We therefore need a higher presence of Security then than a 6am. Cost of this Security should be paid by the Venues in proportional amounts as per their licence numbers.

Firstly educate the young at home/school with moderation, not just with alcohol.

Increase the entry age to 21+ for fully licenced Venues.

Offer Tax ensentives for the large alcohol producing Companies to manufacture a wider range of 1% alcohol content popular known brand drinks.

Then because the youth want to party, & be Adult, open up Venues (licensed for 1% alcoholic drinks for 16 + year olds.

After midnight for the Fully Licensed Venus do “Session” Discos only…. Maximum in time no more than 2 hours, with 1 hour clean up time, where Patrons must leave the premises. (Go to the next)
This allows the next venue’s security to be able to check for over intoxication., thus protecting their license. Also this gives Patrons forced gaps while their drinking

Make the Venues responsible $$$ for police calls. This will help offset cost for extra Policing.

Increase penalties on both Patrons and Venues for serving/drinking above the
+ .1 %.

Have Councils encourage local Cafes
( through $$$ incentives) who cater for the all night Trade

Give more power to Venues to keep trouble makers out. Allow Venues to work together to impose penalties on these people. This will help people realize that they can’t muck up in one place and expect that they can get in some where else. Give all parties a right of defense at a fixed cost with a local Magistrate and reprensentatives of the Venues. 1st offense 1 month lock out.

This is just a few ideas, please add some better ones!!!!!

Darren February 19, 2008 11:15 PM

I’ve found reading this page very informative as the new laws can be confusing at times.
I own a small takeaway in a market town in cornwall which opened less than three years ago opposite a new night-club. Due to its trading position it should be a gold-mine but the local council immediately placed a closing time of 1.30 am on the premises, the night-club closes at 2.00 am so you can see my financial problem.There has been no history of trouble in my establishment and yet you can find a drink far easier than you can food!!.Can this be justified and is there a higher power to appeal too?.

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