Saturday, 10 September 2011

I have a cunning plan

In the 2012 Good Beer Guide, editor Roger Protz offers the following five-point plan to “Save the British Pub”. But, sadly, on most of them he is very much barking up the wrong tree. My comments are shown in italics.

1. Reduce beer taxes

Yes, completely agreed (and all other alcohol duties at the same time). Even though high duties proportionately affect off-trade sales more than those in pubs, a regime in which alcoholic drinks as a whole are expensive encourages people to be more price-conscious and seek out the cheapest options.

2. Reduce VAT on the hospitality industry

Highly unlikely in the current economic climate, and wrong in principle. Government shouldn’t be in the business of giving tax concessions to lame-duck industries anyway, and much of the hospitality trade is actually in rude health. It would have the effect of subsidising McDonalds and Stella much more than real ale. It would be richly ironic if the government ended up doing it, but for “health” reasons excluded alcoholic drinks.

3. Tackle the power of the supermarkets

A complete canard that is pandering to the divide and rule tactics of the anti-drink lobby. There has been a long-term shift from on- to off-trade consumption for a variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with price. Supermarkets follow consumer demand; they cannot create it out of thin air. And making off-trade alcohol more expensive does not give people a single extra penny to spend in pubs, not to mention the encouragement it gives to the black market.

4. Tighten planning laws to stop the closure of viable pubs

While I’m sure it is true that a few profitable pubs have been closed by unscrupulous developers, I don’t see that has made any difference to the overall demand for pubs. If you want to open a new pub, it’s not exactly impossible to get planning permission to do so, and in most areas there’s no shortage of boarded-up pubs available at knock-down prices.

5. Give those who run pubs more freedom to buy beer ‘free of tie’

Given that half the pubs in the UK do not sell real ale, and it accounts for only 15% of on-trade beer sales, even if successful that’s only going to scratch the surface. Most pub company licensees already have access to a fairly wide range of beers, and the fact that they can’t get hold of a few more can’t have more than a negligible impact on total trade. In any case, the giant pub companies such as Punch and Enterprise are following a discredited business model and are visibly disintegrating before our eyes. And why should brewers such as Greene King and Marston’s be forced to offer a free-of-tie option to their own tenants?

So one out of five isn’t a very impressive score, really. And the elephant in the room that really needs to be at the top of the list isn’t even mentioned. To paraphrase Chris Snowdon’s comment currently quoted in the blog header, “If I see one more self-proclaimed beer lover who supported the smoking ban crying crocodile tears about the state of the pub industry, I may throw up.”

As well as this, surely stopping government funding for anti-drink organisations masquerading as charities such as Alcohol Concern, and reining back the incessant tide of hysterical official anti-drink propaganda in favour of a concentration on genuine problem drinkers, also need to be given a high priority.

So my five-point plan would be:

  1. Amend or scrap the smoking ban
  2. Reduce alcohol duties
  3. Stop government funding of anti-drink fakecharities
  4. Turn down the wick on alcohol-related public health advice, and concentrate on problem drinkers
  5. Return the emphasis in drink-drive safety messages to “Stay Low” rather than “Have None for the Road”
It’s not going to “save” pubs, but it might well slow their long-term decline.


  1. Where do I put my X on the ballot for you PC?

    Dave Atherton

  2. 1.Amend the smoking ban.
    Without number 1, all the others become redundant.

  3. I think the Point 5 about allowing pubs to buy beer free-of-tie is valid. I read somewhere (it may even have been in the comments to another of your posts!) that some pubs are charged £135 for a barrel of Fosters when they could buy it independently for £80! If this is the case, then it is a valid point! The rest of your five point plan is good.

  4. @Pete: But if you allow tenants to buy Fosters at £80 a keg in the free trade rather than £135 from the PubCo, you can't assume that nothing else in the equation would change. There's no gain without pain.

    If PubCos were forced to offer free-of-tie tenancies, then one or more of the following would happen:

    1. More marginal outlets would be sold off
    2. More successful pubs would be taken under management
    3. Pub rents across the board would increase

  5. Looks like, having repented his pro-smoking ban stance, Roger Protz has been persuaded to un-repent.

  6. "half the pubs in the UK do not sell real ale"
    Is this true? I don't have figures to disprove it but I can't think of many pubs in Bristol, where I live, that don't (apart from a few Aussie-styled sports bars)

  7. There are huge swathes of pubs in Scotland, South Wales and the industrial North and Midlands of England that have no real ale. There are towns in the North where only one or two out of twenty or more pubs have it. The impression you get from tourist-friendly pubs in nice areas is misleading.

  8. Are you sure about South Wales? Given Brains's dominance in the pub trade here, whilst they do push their keg smoothed rubbish they do still serve real ale in their pubs.

  9. But I would add another, which is to get teenagers back into pubs.

  10. Good point, Fredrik. I was drinking in pubs at 16, but we knew we had to behave ourselves. That doesn't happen nowadays, and you don't tend to see the 18-25 age group in mainstream pubs.

  11. I don't know South Wales very well, but I get the impression there are loads of pubs in the likes of Merthyr, Aberdare, Pontypridd, Blackwood etc that are keg.

    In Stockport Borough maybe around 75% of pubs have cask beer, but the proportion is a lot less in the more working-class areas.

  12. In Birkenhead town centre I can think of 2 Wetherspoons and 5 other pubs serving real ale. The town has 1 GBG entry for a population of 83,000. There are at least 20 pubs/bars that don't sell any real ale. Taking in the whole suburban area of Birkenhead I would suggest between 10 and 15% of pubs serve real ale.

  13. "I don't know South Wales very well, but I get the impression there are loads of pubs in the likes of Merthyr, Aberdare, Pontypridd, Blackwood etc that are keg."

    Not area's I'm familiar with so I'll have to pass on those, you may well be right.

  14. I work in Blackwood fairly regularly and can think of at least half a dozen pubs that have cask. Given that the town isn't excatly awash with pubs I'd say it's got a reasonably good percentage.


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