Thursday, 18 September 2014

Forever Amber

The George & Dragon is an imposing former coaching inn in the centre of Stockport’s satellite town of Cheadle. For many years a Greenall’s house, it closed down a few years ago and, as I said here, there didn’t seem to be much prospect of it ever reopening as a pub. However, it has now been taken over by Amber Taverns, who specialise in reviving wet-led community pubs and, after a fairly thoroughgoing refurbishment, reopened its doors last week.

They’ve done a pretty good job of giving it a “pubby” atmosphere, with extensive bench seating, warm colours and much use of dark wood. It’s resolutely wet-only, with no food of any kind being served, which is a little surprising in a town-centre location. There’s also a strict over-18s only policy, so you won’t be bothered by noisy children running around. The interior is, however, dominated by numerous large screens for showing televised sport, and you can see it becoming the go-to location in the area to watch big matches. There’s an extensive ouside drinking area at the rear.

Although there have been reports of Fool Hardy beers being sold, on my visit the cask range consisted of Pedigree, Cumberland Ale, Hobgoblin and Deuchars IPA, which isn’t exactly going to encourage drinkers to go out of their way. The Pedigree was in decent nick, but at £3.20 a touch pricy for this kind of venue. There’s the usual range of kegs, but nothing of a remotely “craft” nature.

The old pub had an extensive car park, but for some reason they have decided to block this off. The excuse that they don’t want to encourage drink-driving doesn’t really hold water, and in a busy spot with no free on-street parking a car park does give you a competitive advantage. Maybe the longer-term objective is to sell it off for redevelopment. While I was in there, one group came in and asked about parking.

Given the dominance of TV sport, it’s unlikely to become a regular haunt of mine. But it will be interesting to see if Amber Taverns can buck the trend and make a success of an unashamedly down-to-earth, wet-only boozer. There’s an article about their business formula here.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Drinking is good for you

Here’s a must-read article by US addiction export Stanton Peele entitled The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy, making the point – which the health lobby do their best to sweep under the carpet – that there’s overwhelming evidence that moderate drinking (even well above official guidelines) produces better health outcomes than abstention.

The U.S. public health establishment buries overwhelming evidence that abstinence is a cause of heart disease and early death. People deserve to know that alcohol gives most of us a higher life expectancy—even if consumed above recommended limits...

In fact, the evidence that abstinence from alcohol is a cause of heart disease and early death is irrefutable—yet this is almost unmentionable in the United States. Even as health bodies like the CDC and Dietary Guidelines for Americans (prepared by Health and Human Services) now recognize the decisive benefits from moderate drinking, each such announcement is met by an onslaught of opposition and criticism, and is always at risk of being reversed.

Noting that even drinking at non-pathological levels above recommended moderate limits gives you a better chance of a longer life than abstaining draws louder protests still. Yet that’s exactly what the evidence tells us.

Driven by the cultural residue of Temperance, most Americans still view drinking as unhealthy; many call alcohol toxic. Yet, despite drinking far less than many European nations, Americans have significantly worse health outcomes than heavier-drinking countries. (For example, despite being heavily out-drunk by the English, we have almost exactly twice their levels of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.)

Well, I’ll certainly drink to that conclusion!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Standing the test of time

I was recently highly critical of Robinson’s refurbishment of the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton, with its fibreglass cow and bucket urinals. In response to this, John Clarke said in the comments:
Well, who's to say what's "appropriate" for pubs these days? If you have a certain fixed idea of what a "proper pub" should be like then maybe. However "the pub" as a concept is evolving into a variety of incarnations and what is appropriate for one won't be for another. I don't think these days you can apply a blanket "one size fits all" rule of thumb.
Of course pubs have always been designed in many different ways, but there are some design elements that stand the test of time, and some that rapidly go out of fashion and end up being changed into something else. A key point is that the primary purpose of a pub is for people to meet and socialise with each other (as opposed to just eating meals) and therefore the seating plan should promote that. It needs to be arranged so that most seats are looking in to the centre of each room or area, and the seating should preferably be mainly either fixed benches or settles as opposed to individual chairs. If you want to run a restaurant, fine, but it’s not exactly “pubby”.

If you look at the seven National Inventory entries for Stockport – the Alexandra, Arden Arms, Armoury, Blossoms, Crown, Queen’s Head and Swan with Two Necks, plus the nearby Nursery and Griffin, every single one is characterised by extensive fixed seating. These are pubs where the design scheme has lasted for at least 75 years. Indeed, you would struggle to find many National Inventory pubs that don’t have either fixed seating or settles. I can think of a few recent refurbs where eliminating comfortable seating seems to be a high priority, and I wonder how long they will last.

The second point is that colour schemes should be predominantly “warm”, to give a cosy and welcoming impression. This is well summed up by this extract from The Traditional English Pub by Ben Davies. The point that pub colours should reflect the colours of drinks is very well made.

I recently mentioned a Robinson’s refurbishment saying it used “a palette of light, neutral colours”, which basically is completely wrong. Pubs should use a palette of rich, warm colours.

Over the years, people have come up with all kinds of gimmicky pub designs, seating plans and colour schemes. They always think that the tried and trusted is old hat and they know better. But, by and large, they’ve all rapidly dated and been replaced before too long by the latest fad. If you want your refurbishment to last, you need to look at what has lasted before.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Buying on strength

I’ve often referred semi-jokingly on here to “bangs per buck” as a factor in buying alcoholic drinks, and I recently mentioned that one of the reasons advanced by the brewers for not declaring alcoholic strength was that it would tend to lead drinkers to “buy on strength”.

However, in practice the vast majority of drinkers don’t look at it that way. While obviously alcohol has an effect on you, it is generally seen as something that will aid socialising or relaxing, rather than regarding inebriation as an end in itself, to be achieved as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Apart from a few expensive premium brands, the vast majority of spirits are sold at standard strengths of 37.5% or 40% ABV which makes little odds either way – it’s the difference between Carlsberg and Fosters. Most table wines come within a range equivalent to that covering bitters and best bitters, and recently there has been something of a backlash against the richer New World reds achieving strengths above 14%.

Beer obviously covers a much wider range of strengths, but even here people in general choose products within a particular strength category rather than just looking at what’s going to get them drunk most quickly. If they do discriminate, it is usually to buy cheaper products within the same category. In the off-trade, this may well involve going for what’s on offer; in the on-trade, it’s more likely to be a case of choosing the pub charging lower prices overall.

Indeed, some beers have suffered from being a little stronger than the norm. Many drinkers used to complain that Robinson’s Best Bitter (now Unicorn) gave them a “bad head” because, at 4.2%, it was that bit stronger than the norm of ordinary bitters. More recently, a number of beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Bateman’s XXXB have had their strength reduced because pub drinkers were steering clear of beers around 5%.

It’s also a myth that the notorious “super lagers” such as Carlsberg Special Brew are particularly cheap in terms of cost per alcohol unit. It’s generally not difficult to find a lower unit price amongst the cheaper end of the 5% premium lagers. The main attraction of these products is that they offer a quick and effective alcohol delivery mechanism – drinking eight cans of Stella is much more like hard work than four cans of Spesh.

The only category where drinkers can really be said to be buying on strength is the absolute bottom end of the cider market, the 3-litre bottles of Three Hammers and suchlike. But, across the generality of the alcohol market, it isn’t a principle that holds water.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Dining down Memory Lane

I was recently going through my late mother’s effects* and came across this typed menu from the Old Vicarage Hotel at Stretton in Cheshire. From the combination of date and day it dates from either 1979 or 1984, but I strongly suspect the former.

It’s very much a sign of a bygone era. The lack of floweriness and pretension in the food descriptions is notable – if you have to type it out, you can’t afford to be too verbose. Also there’s a complete absence of a vegetarian option. Rainbow Trout Cleopatra – which is what I would probably have chosen on that occasion – doesn’t involve asp venom or asses’ milk, it’s just served with herring roe and capers.

Hotels don’t tend to be seen as such desirable dining venues as they once were, and this one has long since been completely rebuilt and massively extended as the Park Royal.

* Don’t worry – she in fact passed away last year, but I’ve only just got round to getting my old scanner working again

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Give us the facts

I was recently critical of a report by a Parliamentary committee calling for more prominent and graphic health warnings on alcoholic drinks. However, as this opinion piece in The Grocer argues, surely providing more information is a good thing, and up to a point the author is right. I remember when alcoholic strengths were never stated on bottles of beer or wine, and spirits were quoted in terms of % proof which to most people was meaningless. Now it’s unthinkable that this information shouldn’t be provided and, far from leading to people “buying on strength” the end result has often been choosing slightly weaker drinks. Likewise, stating the number of alcohol units gives a ready comparison between drinks of different strengths and package sizes.

If we have to have health warnings, the present rather discreet and standardised ones aren’t really too objectionable, and at least they admit the possibility that very modest consumption might not be harmful. Nobody who is likely to take any notice can be unaware that excessive consumption may have an adverse effect. And it’s hard to see any objection to following the example of virtually all other food and drink products and stating both calorie content and ingredients. The latter is something that producers of all types of alcoholic drinks have long resisted, suggesting that they may have something to hide.

But there comes a point when the provision of facts to help people make informed purchases morphs into a conscious attempt to deter purchase in the first place. Even without photos of diseased livers, putting more prominent health warnings on the front of packages would fall into that category and needs to be strongly resisted.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Bucket challenge

I’ve linked to them in the comments, but I thought it would be worth posting another couple of pictures of the interior design scheme at the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton. First is Ermantrude (sic) the full-size fibreglass cow, and second is the gents’ urinals, which take the form of a row of stainless steel buckets. I bet they pissed themselves laughing when designing that.

Considered contemporary design is one thing, but with gimmicks like this the joke will very soon fall flat.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Pretentious, moi?

Going back forty years or so, Robinson’s brewery seemed to have been afflicted by a virus for drastic, then-trendy pub refurbishments. These had no regard to the pubs’ traditional character and typically involved severe knocking through, “Spanish arches”, white artexed walls, 24-panel glass doors and low, lounge-style chairs. Fortunately, they eventually came to their senses and began carrying out sensible, tasteful updates like that of the Railway at Rose Hill, Marple.

But, more recently, a new generation of Robinsons has taken over, and they have started to take a more drastic approach. For a start, they have closed down a substantial number of their under-performing pubs, as I described here. Now, I’m the last person in the world to expect breweries to keep pubs open that they don’t see as viable, and Robinson’s haven’t applied restrictive covenants to any of them, but even so it’s a clear statement of intent.

They have also been taking a very consciously un-traditional approach to pub refurbishments, and seem to have completely jumped the shark with what has been done to the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton (which I have to admit I have never actually been in before or after).

Upon entry you are greeted by the gaze of Ermantrude, a full-size fiberglass cow. Hand painted, her floral design emulates the upholstery that adorns several new seating areas and is a taster of what awaits.

Elsewhere, customers will be charmed with a flutter of butterflies across the ceiling and a pantheon of cascading flowers that seemingly grow from the walls creating a theatrical focal point that has never before been seen in a Robinsons pub...

Major structural work has also taken place with the addition of an impressive orangery. New wallpaper, which resembles the shadows of trees, covers the walls of the new extension and seems to move with each cloud that passes overhead.

Nurse, nurse, the smelling salts please! The illustration looks as though someone has thrown up all over the wall and ceiling.

In the 60s and 70s, the then Watney Mann employed an interior designer called Roy Wilson-Smith who carried out some quite bizarre internal refurbishments that made drinking in a pub seem more like being in the jungle or a grotto. It seems that his spirit is alive and well and stalking the Robinson’s estate.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding what has been done to the Farmer’s Arms a load of fashionable, pretentious twaddle that shows zero understanding of or sympathy for the concept of “pub atmosphere”. It’s the kind of trendy nonsense that CAMRA would once have had the guts to roundly condemn but will probably now praise as “bright and contemporary”. Will people never learn that what seems modern and cutting-edge today will look sadly dated in a few years’ time?

Browsing through Robinson’s website, I also came across this description of the refurbishment of the Crown on Walney Island in Furness, where the illustration (right) comes across as just the kind of deliberately uncosy, cold-coloured pub interior that I was complaining about here. It says it uses “a palette of light, neutral colours”, which is just what you don’t want to see in a pub, where colour schemes should be rich and warm.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Booze, blokes and banter

Over the years, on several occasions I’ve mentioned the lively, traditional pub atmosphere that still prevails in many Sam Smith’s pubs, in particular the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, for example here.

It’s interesting that Timbo, posting on the A Swift One blog, has noticed the same thing in the Commercial, Huddersfield:

The Commercial was rammed, I struggled to find somewhere to sit and people watch. It brought my thinking round to the old days. This was how I remember pubs from my youth. Lots of middle aged and older men, sitting around, chewing the fat with their mates and shifting gallons of beer. It was a proper pub. No pretensions, just lots of chat. I could overhear conversations on many and varied topics. Football, Politics, The inefficient local council, and so on. There was background music, but unobtrusive.
Thirty or forty years ago, plenty of pubs were like that, but it’s now very rare outside of the Sam’s estate. Even most of Holt’s pubs seem to have lost it. Obviously Sam’s cheap prices are an attraction, but it’s more than that – a camaraderie develops, and a feeling of being at home. The cosy design encourages people to talk to each other, whereas in Spoons, which are similarly cheap, you often get each table occupied by a solitary bloke with his plastic carrier bag, copy of the Sun or Mirror and pint of John Smith’s.

As you can see from the photo, it’s a very plain, foursquare stone building with a marked lack of external advertising. But it doesn’t need to shout from the rooftops to drum up business, as its loyal regulars are well aware of what they’ll find inside.

A beer apart

I was recently in a pub in north-east Derbyshire, and next to me were a couple of old boys who were talking quite knowledgeably about the old beers and breweries of the area – Stones, Whitbread, Mansfield, Home Ales, even Holes of Newark. However, even though the pub was listed in the Good Beer Guide and had a range of four cask beers, when one returned from the bar he was carrying pints of John Smith’s Extra Smooth and Theakston’s Mild, both keg.

If you go back thirty-five years, north of a line approximately from Worcester to the Wash, probably well over half of the cask beer in England was served by electric pumps. Home were one of the breweries where they were well-nigh universal in their estate, as, of course were Wolves & Dudley in the West Midlands. For most of its drinkers, it was just seen as beer, not as something different called “real ale”. My subjective memory is that electric dispense tended to produce a more reliable pint than handpumps, although whether that is down to the fact that it was used in higher-turnover pubs, or that it made it more difficult for bar staff to ruin a pint through incompetent pulling technique, I wouldn’t like to say.

Of course, if you want to promote real ale as something that stands out from other beers, it doesn’t help if it’s dispensed from bar mountings that are indistinguishable from those used for keg and tank beers. And so, over the years, brewers, encouraged by CAMRA, steadily replaced electric pumps with handpumps, to the extent that electric cask dispense has pretty much entirely disappeared now. I’m sure the fact that there was a saving to be had from replacing oversize glasses with brim-measure ones never entered their heads.

However, this has left a substantial population of older drinkers who would once have happily drunk real ale in the pub, although never thinking of it as such, but have now been deterred by bad experiences of that funny stuff that comes out of handpumps and prefer to stick to the likes of John Smith’s. Indeed on several occasions I’ve heard older drinkers ask bar staff “have you got any smooth?” when, in their drinking heyday, “smooth” as such had not even been invented.

And might there also be many younger pubgoers who will make a point of avoiding anything that comes from a handpump, but would be prepared to experiment with a chilled and carbonated “craft keg” if it came from the same T-bar row as San Miguel?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades

Regular commenter “py” recently posted this link to a collection of students’ thoughts on “traditional pubs”. A lot of the comments are along the lines of “pubs are old-fashioned” and “pubs don’t cater for us”.

What a contrast to my student days! Yes, this was in the era of Small is Beautiful, the Good Life and Citizen Smith, but our approach was completely different. Pubs were there, as they were, warts and all, and they needed to be explored and understood. We used to go on pilgrimages out to the Black Country to visit the Old Swan and Batham’s, Holden’s and Simpkiss pubs. These were generally small, basic pubs with an older, working-class clientele, but they were still interesting and worth exploring. The regulars were probably astonished at being invaded by parties of students, but they took it in their stride.

The pubs (OK not the Simpkiss ones) are still there now, but you really can’t imagine today’s students doing the same. In those days, people put a positive value on the old-fashioned, individualistic, quirky and traditional, and were prepared to make an effort to understand it, whereas now they prefer instant gratification and having everything served up on a plate.

As I’ve mentioned before, the appreciation of the past has greatly diminished. CAMRA, to its great credit, continues to maintain the National Inventory, but a growing number of members fail to see the point. I remember when any move by the breweries to “knock through” or “gut” a pub was roundly condemned, but now it’s often welcomed as “making it brighter and more contemporary”.

Much the same is true in the beer sphere, which maybe deserves a post of its own. And I can’t help thinking that in this relentless pursuit of modernity and innovation we’re losing something. Give me a pint of Draught Bass in an unspoilt wood-panelled snug any day!

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The best-laid plans

Given all the discussion at present about pubs and the planning system, I thought it would be worth looking into the subject in a bit more detail. I found this document which gives a pretty good overview of the rules applying to change of use.

Pubs fall into Use Class A4 “Drinking establishments” and can be converted without needing planning permission to A3 “Restaurants”, A2 “Financial and professional services” and A1 “Shops”. The thinking behind this is that planning permission shouldn’t be needed to convert premises to uses that are likely to have less adverse impact on the local community.

It should be noted, though, that planning permission is needed to convert pubs to residential use, and is also needed if any change of use involves demolition or significant external alterations. So essentially the further restrictions CAMRA is calling for involve requiring planning permission to convert existing pub buildings, largely unaltered, to restaurants, bank branches or retail.

The restaurant element can be discounted, as the boundary between the two is very blurred and it isn’t difficult to turn a pub into something that to all intents and purposes is a restaurant but still retains a small bar at which you can in theory just buy a drink. There are plenty of Indian “restaurant and bar” establishments in former pubs that must come into this category.

The idea of pubs being turned into banks is a little far-fetched – indeed it isn’t that long ago when it was commonplace to see conversions going the other way. So basically we are just left with retail premises. What people are concerned about are examples where apparently entirely viable pubs have been abruptly closed and then suddenly turned into a Tesco Express without any form of public consultation. If it needed planning permission, the argument goes, then it would all be out in the open, and other pub operators and community groups would be given the opportunity to make a bid.

While this has happened in a few cases, in reality, the instances where others are going to come in and make an offer to keep the place in operation as a pub are relatively scarce. It is far more common for a struggling pub to close its doors and then remain boarded up for twelve months or more before someone comes along with a plan to turn it into a shop. There will have been plenty of time for others to bid, but it just doesn’t happen. There are three local examples of former pubs that have been turned into convenience stores, such as the White Lion in Withington shown above, all of which had been previously closed for some time, and I’m not aware of any attempts to keep them going as pubs.

In recent years, two of the four nearest pubs to me have closed. The Four Heatons has now been demolished and is being rebuilt as a convenience store with flats above, which of course did need planning permission. While once a thriving pub, the smoking ban effectively sealed its fate and I doubt whether many will have mourned its passing. It was closed and boarded for three years before building work started. Likewise, there hasn’t been any evidence of interest in reviving the Woolpack (pictured right) as a pub. Again, this was once highly-regarded but, on an awkward site with minimal car parking and no nearby houses, it had struggled for a while, and in fact closed once, was then revived for a couple of years by new owners, but now seems to have closed for good. Requiring planning permission for change of use would not magically bring these pubs back to life; it would simply keep them closed and boarded for longer.

In a blogpost that no doubt will ruffle a few feathers, Martyn Cornell points out two more significant drawbacks of CAMRA’s proposals. The first is that, once it became clear that new planning controls were on their way to the statute book, there would inevitably be a stampede amongst pub operators to convert some of their more marginal outlets to retail use, thus precipitating the loss of even more pubs. And, if you had to get planning permission to convert even the smallest bar in a shopping parade to an optician’s or a delicatessen, it would make people far more reluctant to open new bars in the first place, and banks to lend them money. The growth in new outlets in former retail premises, from Wetherspoon’s to micropubs, has been one of the biggest sources of change and innovation in the licensed trade in recent years. The end result would not be a more successful pub sector, but one that was smaller, more stagnant and less able to respond to changes in the marketplace.

It’s possible to think of ways of mitigating the second problem, such as setting a size threshold below which the planning requirement did not apply, or allowing the reconversion to retail of new bars within a period of x years, and points such as this would need to be carefully considered. At a time when the future of High Streets is a live political issue, making the planning system more rigid and unresponsive could easily end up acting against their regeneration.

As I have said before, the idea that stricter planning controls would save any significant number of pubs from closure is complete pie in the sky and, sadly, CAMRA is once again wasting its campaigning efforts on a wild goose chase.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Time to revive pub-lic life

Looks like someone's been reading this blog...

Without a vibrant public sphere, what need is there for the public house? In the eyes of the state, pubs are places where all kinds of unacceptable behaviour take place – and therefore they must be strictly controlled. Binge drinking is defined by the NHS as consuming more than eight units of alcohol for a man (fewer than three pints of lager) and six units for a woman (two pints of lager). This means that on any given night, the vast majority of people sitting in pubs across the UK are doing something the state does not approve of.

The state has been on an all-out assault on peoples’ perceived vices for a long time. Despite UK chancellor George Osborne cutting the duty on beer by a token 1p in two consecutive budgets, it will take inflation some time to catch up with the price of a pint. Indeed, between 2008 and 2012, prices rose by 42 per cent – the result of an ‘escalator’ sin tax. Other intrusions, such as the smoking ban, have also made pubs less desirable to hang out in. Young people, too, are drinking less than ever before, and when they do drink it is unlikely to be in pubs, thanks to overzealous enforcement of underage drinking laws and government-funded campaigns like ‘Challenge 25’.

It is difficult to know how to rejuvenate the pub. But for the likes of CAMRA to call on the state to come to pubs’ aid is counter-intuitive and absurd. The underlying societal issues behind the decline of the pub are hard to tackle, but we could start by scrapping the smoking ban, beer duties and anti-drinking campaigns, and stop the demonisation of young drinkers. Then, perhaps, people might come out from behind their laptops and go out for a drink. And that could only have a positive effect on public life as a whole.

It’s certainly true to say that more regulation never revived anything.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

You have been warned!

Over the weekend, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse (which is basically a self-appointed collection of nanny staters with no official standing) issued a report calling, amongst other things, for the introduction of health warnings on alcoholic drink packages:
“Health warnings are a familiar and prominent feature on all tobacco products. Likewise, detailed nutritional labelling is ubiquitous on food products and soft drinks.

“Yet consumer information on alcohol products usually extends no further than the volume strength and unit content.

“In order to inform consumers about balanced risk, every alcohol label should include an evidence-based health warning as well as describing the product's nutritional, calorific and alcohol content.”

Note how, not for the first time, the treatment of tobacco is being used as a template for alcohol policy.

I have to say I start to suffer from “outrage fatigue” in response to stories like this – RedNev covers it in more detail here. However, some of the implications need to be considered. It somewhat surprisingly ignores the fact that the vast majority of bottles and cans already have health labelling as shown in the example above. However, the implication is that they want much more prominent warnings, on the front labels rather than on the back, and presumably large notices along the same lines to be displayed in pubs and bars where many drinks are not served from individual containers.

The claim is that this will be providing consumers with information about what they are drinking, but of course they have that information already and, in any case, surely nobody who is likely to be influenced by such warnings can have no idea that alcohol might be damaging to health if consumed to excess.

The drinks industry has always enjoyed a figleaf of respectability behind which it can say that it is not alcohol per se that is dangerous, just drinking too much of it. However, warnings of this kind will increasingly snip that away and instead at least imply an unequivocal message that any quantity is bad for you.

Now of course many people will cheerfully ignore these labels, but on the margins some will look at a bottle with a big notice on the front saying “This stuff is bad for you” and conclude it’s something they really should be avoiding. Who wants to sit there at a dinner party with a bottle displaying a picture of a diseased liver sitting in the middle of the table? It will be another drip, drip, drip effect deterring people from drinking at all – which of course is the intention in the first place. It is part of the process of denormalisation.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A tale told by an idiot

It’s depressingly common to encounter the narrative that the pub closures of the past decade or so have been largely due to badly-managed, short-sighted pub companies acting in concert with bungling councils and grasping developers. Indeed this almost seems to have become the CAMRA orthodoxy.

Yes, pub companies are far from perfect, but this comes across as utterly delusional when you consider all the negative demand factors that have been affecting pubs. Has there really been no impact from the decline of heavy industry, inner-city depopulation, an influx of people from cultures with no pubgoing tradition, changing gender roles, discouragement of lunch¬time drinking at work, denormalisation of drink-driving within the legal limit or the smoking ban?

As I’ve argued before, while it may be possible to construct a narrative for how a particular failed pub could have been better run, it’s far harder to do the same for the pub trade as a whole. There has been a prolonged secular decline in the demand for pubs (or at least for drinking in pubs) that goes well beyond the specifics of individual businesses.

So you have to wonder what is the motivation for these people? Are they basically living in a fantasy world, or are they spurred on by a visceral anti-capitalist agenda that completely ignores the real reasons pubs are closing – often combined with an animus towards the evil supermarkets who have the cheek to sell us a wide range of stuff at keen prices? It almost comes across as a deliberate distraction technique. The one thing that is certain is that they aren’t really interested in the long-term viability of pubs.

Anyone who claims that pub companies are the chief cause of the thirty-year decline of the British pub is completely detached from reality. If you really value pubs, the best way to stand up for them is to fight the anti-drink lobby and the smoking ban, not to wail about the evils of Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns.

And, of course, if it really was a case of lax planning constraints shutting successful pubs, then the pubs that remain would be heaving. Which, in most cases, they aren’t – not to mention the thousands of closed and boarded pubs the length and breadth of the country that are currently neither trading nor yet converted to alternative use.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

It's all kicking off again

It’s the middle of August, so once again I need to start checking the football fixtures before venturing out to the pub at weekend lunchtimes or midweek evenings.

Contrary to the popular impression, I do actually take a passing interest in football and quite enjoyed watching some of the matches in the World Cup. The problem in pubs is not that it is shown at all, but that it is allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all else. Given the cost of Sky TV, you can perhaps understand pubs wanting to put screens everywhere, but that makes it clear to those who aren’t interested in football that they’re not really welcome. If you just showed it in the vault you might think you weren’t getting your money’s worth. Last Spring I was in a pub that mainly concentrates on food trade, but even so has a screen in every section. A Premier League match involving two out-of-area teams was showing, with the sound up, but hardly anyone was watching. What is the point? It might be a good idea for Sky to offer a reduced subscription to pubs who were only going to show it in part of their interior, but that would be very hard to enforce.

Locally, I know that if I go to Spoons, or a Sam Smith’s pub, or one of the several beer-focused free houses in Stockport town centre, I won’t be confronted with a mass of chanting football fans. But surely I should be able to call in most pubs at random without being forced to research the fixtures before going out. And, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the pubs in my immediate area, including the two within realistic walking distance, do have Sky Sports.

In fact, there are growing signs that pubs are realising that every customer they attract with TV football puts at least one other off. It doesn’t convey the image that many pubs want to encourage. Much of this is to do with attracting dining trade, but there are straws in the wind that the micropub movement is encouraging a return to the old-fashioned drink and chat pub. Ralph Findlay of Marston’s says that sport is becoming less important to his pubs, while the Financial Times reports:

Surveys by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers reveal the proportion of landlords with a sports subscription is in steady decline. In 2003, it was 51 per cent but last season had slumped to 37 per cent.

Kate Nicholls of the ALMR said with subscription costs averaging £15,000 a year and rising 5 per cent from next week, landlords were finding it harder to make the economics stack up.

“We are seeing a declining proportion of pubs majoring on sport,” she said. “Changing demographics and costs come into it. If you become a food-led pub, Sky becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.”

I saw a recent report that more people each year go to the theatre in London than attend all Premier League fixtures across the country, so the idea that football is something enjoying unrivalled national popularity is rather wide of the mark..

Apart from matches featuring City and United, I don’t see much sign around here that it actually draws in additional custom. Many pubs have it simply because they fear that, if they didn’t, all their customers would decamp elsewhere. A big match is a big earner. But, as I’ve said before, it’s a case of waiting for the other man to blink first. The total cost of Sky Sports to pubs probably greatly exceeds the additional revenue it generates for the pub trade as a whole. And the point is often made that many of the customers who flock in to watch the two big local clubs are never seen in the pub at other times and may not put that much money across the bar when they’re there.

At present, it would be nice to go in a pub and see the Test Match being shown on a TV screen. But I wouldn’t really go out of my way for it.

Friday, 8 August 2014

A taxing question

While you may not always agree with him, Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin has to be applauded for being prepared, unlike many of his counterparts, to speak out on the issues facing the brewing and pub industry. However, one campaign on which to my mind he is very wide of the mark is that for a lower rate of VAT to apply to food sales in the hospitality trade. It is claimed that is would give a major boost to employment, but in reality it is ill-considered on a whole range of counts.

The issue is portrayed by its supporters as some kind of unjustified subsidy to supermarkets, whereas in fact a zero rate of VAT has always applied to the vast majority of food sold in shops, whether supermarkets or local traders, and few people would argue that it should be taxed. Fifty years ago, the vast majority of alcohol sales were in the on-trade, but since then the off-trade has steadily gained despite not enjoying any advantage in tax and duty. In contrast, out-of-home dining has mushroomed. It’s possible to argue that, for most alcohol purchases, there’s a realistic choice between the two, but the same is never going to apply to food.

It’s also not comparing like with like. Even if food bought in a shop is zero-rated, to actually eat it you need to take it home, store it (maybe in the fridge), cook it using gas or electricity, provide tables, chairs, plates and cutlery to eat it, and heating and lighting for your room, all of which may be subject to VAT, whereas these things are included in the price of a meal served up in a pub.

It’s hard to argue that out-of-home food is too dear anyway – indeed some people would claim that it is too cheap. There’s a wide variety of food available at all kinds of price points, and would reducing the price of their £9.99 Beef Stroganoff to £8.75 really prove a decision-breaker for many people?

It wouldn’t only be pubs that benefited, either. The hospitality trade encompasses all kinds of cafés, takeaways and restaurants too, so it would be giving a financial boost to your local kebab shop and burger joint as well as, if not more, than pubs. “Unfair tax treatment for McDonald’s” doesn’t somehow sound quite as appealing. It would also be helping the bottom line of three-star restaurants. The well-off tend to eat out more than the poor, and spend a lot more each time, so they would gain the greatest benefit. By definition, the more costly a meal, the higher the VAT element. And, when many food campaigners are complaining that people are less and less often preparing meals from scratch, surely cutting the cost of prepared meals would make them even less likely to cook at home.

It’s always a moot point whether it is better overall to reduce taxes or increase government expenditure, which I don’t propose to go into here. The proposed VAT cut from 20% to 5% on out-of-home eating would undoubtedly be expensive, and, even assuming it is affordable, it’s not difficult to come up with areas where a tax cut might be more widely beneficial. Two obvious examples are a smaller reduction in the general rate of VAT, and increasing the income tax threshold. And, if encouraging employment is the main objective, then that would be better addressed by either increasing the threshold or reducing the rate of employers’ National Insurance contributions.

The conclusion must be that this is a superficially appealing but poorly thought out idea that is a classic example of special pleading, wanting tax favours for businesses you happen to think are deserving. Even if money was available for tax cuts, it would be much better spent elsewhere.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Take courage, kids!

It was recently reported that alcohol, tobacco and drug consumption amongst young people had fallen to the lowest level in a generation, and it has been widely observed that today’s youth seem to be a po-faced, earnest, unadventurous lot compared with their equivalents in earlier decades.

This subject is addressed in a must-read article entitled Britain’s timid teens need to go to the pub by Neil Davenport, who sees it as symptomatic of a wider social malaise.

The downside of making it much more difficult for pubs to socialise young people into adult society is a theme I have mentioned several times in the past. It is how you learn to deal with complex, multi-generational social spaces.

Adults were once of a similar view: many recognised drinking in the pub as a rite of passage, an important means by which young people became part of a local community. This is why many pub landlords used to turn a blind eye to 16- or 17-year-olds sneaking in for an illicit drink. In turn, teens would have to behave in a mature way in pubs to avoid being turfed out. Today, health authoritarians would be aghast at the idea of landlords knowingly serving underage drinkers. They would complain that drinking damages young people’s health, that it encourages alcohol dependency and aggravates anti-social behaviour. But 20 to 30 years ago, landlords and adult society more broadly instinctively understood how the pub helped teenagers become socially adept and confident adults. Far from social boozing automatically being seen as a threat, it was viewed as important to young people’s social development. Today, the reverse is the case: young people’s aversion to social drinking is stunting their development as socially confident and independent adults.
And it’s not only damaging to the pub trade, but is also likely to have wider negative social consequences:
The latest decline in boozing among young people in this new age of teen puritans is nothing to celebrate. Like staying at home with mum and dad into your thirties, it is an avoidance of what once defined us as adults. To have a truly healthy relationship with booze, it is time young people acquainted themselves with pubs and public drinking.
When I was in my late teens and early 20s, going to the pub – and a pub that catered for all age groups, not just one targeted at the young – was the default option for socialising. For most of our counterparts today, that is no longer the case and indeed, even where pubs do survive, their increasingly segmentalised nature makes it much harder than it once was.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Trust me, I’m a doctor

A proposal that has been made in various quarters to address growing public disengagement from politics is the introduction of “open primaries” whereby all electors in a constituency, of whatever allegiance, are given a say in the selection of a party’s candidate. This idea always seems very questionable to me, as surely it will encourage a bland, anodyne centrism and also tend to institutionalise the role of the existing political parties. Would the Monster Raving Loony Party be expected to hold open primaries? The maverick, individualist MPs who enliven the political landscape would be squeezed out. And, given that modern Britain seems to treat the NHS as a kind of secular religion, any candidate with a medical background would get an immediate head start.

A prime example of this was the selection of Dr Sarah Wollaston as Conservative candidate for Totnes in Devon at the 2010 General Election. Although the majorities have sometimes been slender, this seat has been won by the Conservatives at every election since 1923, so must be regarded as pretty safe. Since her election, she has been one of the most outspoken champions in the House of Commons of measures to restrict people’s lifestyle choices, being a strong advocate of minimum alcohol pricing and plain tobacco packaging, and most recently demanding government-dictated standard portion sizes for food as a means of combating obesity.

Many have even questioned what she is doing in the Conservative Party at all, as surely two of the key principles of modern-day conservatism must be encouraging individual responsibility and a scepticism about top-down State solutions to improve the human condition.

As Brendan O’Neill said in a recent speech to the annual dinner of the Free Society, this tendency isn’t just about imposing a few extra restrictions, it is challenging the entire foundation of the Enlightenment which has been the foundation of much Western political thought for over three hundred years.

What we’re really witnessing is the unravelling of the Enlightenment itself. The Enlightenment was based on the idea that individuals should be free to carve out their own moral and spiritual path in life without being hectored, harried or “corrected” by their rulers.

As John Locke said in his letter on toleration, one of the earliest documents of the Enlightenment, “The care of souls does not belong to the [state]… every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself.

This is the real fight we have on our hands today – not a fight against a bunch of annoying nannies, but a fight against the attempted colonisation of our souls by a state which thinks, wrongly, that it knows better than we do ourselves how our lives should be run.

The term is often too freely bandied about, but, as Simon Cooke explains, this genuinely is Health Fascism – the belief that individuals are not qualified to make sensible decisions for themselves and need to subordinate free choice to the higher purpose of the State.
Which is why the term 'health fascist' is entirely appropriate to describe Dr Wollaston's position. The central tenet of fascism is that the state has a duty to change men so they serve the wider purpose of the nation - we are subservient to the needs of that state because it understands what is necessary to build the right kind of society. So it is with the 'duty to intervene' - people ordering 'supersized' boxes of popcorn are not merely damaging themselves, they also damage society by placing a 'cost' on us all. Such practices are decadent with the sin compounded by the suggestion that someone profits from making people eat larger portions.

So to put this right government has that 'duty to intervene'. The wider interests of society - defined with the term 'obesity epidemic' - are served by banning a person from entering freely into a contract with another person because the state has decided that large servings of fizzy-pop and popcorn are unhealthy.

This rejection of choice in a free society because of associated 'health risks' or the 'normalisation' of some proscribed behaviour represents a degree of control and a justification on the basis of wider society's 'interests' that can only be described as fascist. Yet this health fascism - the view that bans and controls are needed because of the 'cost to society' - has become ever more common. That we are weak and make poor choices is undeniable and society should help us to deal with these problems but this does not justify saying that I cannot be allowed the option of a 'poor' choice. The former is good government, that latter health fascism.

Let us hope at next year’s General Election someone (probably UKIP) puts up a candidate against this dreadful woman who is prepared to place a lot of emphasis on lifestyle issues.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Vested interest

The hot weather inevitably leads to parts of the human body being revealed that really should be kept under wraps. One common manifestation of this is men wearing vests. Now, I’m sure the men so attired feel it’s comfortably cooling and informal, but it can’t be said to convey a high-class image.

So I thought I would ask blog readers what they thought of this tendency, at least as it applies to pub customers. A significant majority – 64% - didn’t really approve, but only 21% actively wanted licensees to ban the practice. I’m sure the old–school landlords would never have tolerated it, or at least confined it to the public bar. What happened to all those pubs that pub guides of the past used to say insisted on “smart casual dress”?

I had in mind fat, sweaty blokes with hairy shoulders, so the visions of Greek gods conjured up by those who said they “liked a bit of eye candy” were rather wide of the mark.

And rest assured Mudgie will never appear in public wearing a vest – or shorts, for that matter. If he did, people would probably run screaming. Although yesterday I did see a man considerably older than myself wearing one in the pub. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

You may remember this poll I did a couple of years ago about what people thought were acceptable reasons for pub licensees to refuse customers access – although it didn’t include vests.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Green shoots of recovery

In his mammoth history of the Second World War, Antony Beevor writes of how the mood of the Wehrmacht lifted in the Spring of 1942 following the struggles of the previous winter:
Yet once the birch trees came into leaf and the sun began to dry out the waterlogged land, the morale of German officers experienced an extraordinary revival. It was as if the terrible winter had been little more than a bad dream, and now their run of victories would recommence.
After six years of virtually unrelieved hard pounding following the smoking ban and the recession, the economic recovery now seems to be persuading some pub operators that the broad sunlit uplands may once again be attainable. The most recent beer sales figures were the most positive this century, even for the on-trade.

I can remember when Stockport Market Place was home to six pubs and bars – including two new conversions – and was the centre of a vibrant live music scene. Slowly, they fell by the wayside, and by the end of last year, after the closure of the Baker’s Vaults, the number was down to two, although, to be fair, the recently-refurbished and renamed Cocked Hat was a great improvement on the old Pack Horse. The centre of gravity of the town-centre pub trade had very much shifted to the “Stockport Slope” half a mile further west on and around the A6 between the Crown and the Hope.

But the money is now starting to flow, with Robinson’s having reopened the Baker’s Vaults following an expensive trendy makeover, and plans being well advanced to bring the long-dormant premises of Bambooza (previously Yates’ Wine Lodge) back into use as “Live Bar”. Apparently this – in a high-ceilinged former bank – is to be a “sports and music focused bar”, albeit with six real ales available. People clearly see an opportunity and are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

I get the feeling, though, that many independent pub operators just seem to take an attitude of “if you build it, they will come” rather than carrying out any detailed market research. Stockport town centre does suffer from a serious lack of footfall in the evenings and, if these new ventures are to succeed, they will need to draw fresh customers in from outside.

Economic revival can cut both ways, though. Five years ago, I wrote about how the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme had been given a stay of execution, because the recession had caused plans to redevelop the site for sheltered housing had fallen through. It continued to struggle on, but Hydes never really seem to have made a go of it, and it now looks as though it is finally going to close. There must be many other pubs around where improving property prices now make them more attractive for conversion to alternative use.

It does seem to be a perennial problem that, despite all the nearby houses, modern estate-type pubs just seem doomed to failure unless they can be turned into destination dining venues as has happened with the Pointing Dog (ex-Smithy). If there was a magic formula, surely someone would have happened on it by now.

And – no doubt you will think “you would say that, you miserable doom-mongering git” – but in my view the long-term secular trend for the pub trade remains resolutely downwards. One swallow does not make a summer.

Incidentally, I wonder when they’re going to get round to putting the final coat of paint on the Baker’s on top of the grey primer.