Monday 30 August 2010


On a Bank Holiday Monday, why not go for a spin in the car? By 1938 there were two million cars on the roads of Britain. And one thing those mostly middle-class car owners were keen to do was to escape the confines of the city, and go out for a drink in the countryside. The brewers obviously responded to this trend by redeveloping existing pubs and building new ones to cater for the burgeoning “car trade”. Robinson’s of Stockport had a specific policy of acquiring and developing country pubs when many of their competitors held off. There’s still plenty of 1930s pub architecture around to be appreciated, even if in virtually all cases the interiors have been gutted more than once. Also bear in mind that coach trips to country pubs were extremely popular in those days too. Here are four examples – for a change all still trading – in Cheshire:

The Nag’s Head, Bridge Trafford – originally a Greenalls pub

The Helsby Arms, Helsby – originally the “Brown Cow”, this was built to coincide with the opening of the A5117 Chester By-Pass road, which revolutionised road travel to the North Wales coast. Developed by one of Bass’ predecessor companies (possibly Bents of Liverpool)

The Red Lion, Eaton – another former Greenalls pub, replacing an older pub in the village centre

The Legs of Man, Arclid – typical of a number of Robinson’s 1930s developments

The common architectural theme, with prominent tiled gables, is very obvious.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Some more equal than others

A few weeks ago I posted some sobering statistics showing that total on-trade beer volumes had fallen more than 40% since 1997, and weren’t much more than a third of what they were at what will come to be seen as the all-time peak of the pub and club trade in the late 1970s. Now, obviously people will counter that by saying “well, I regularly go in the Mole & Meerkat and it’s packed every night”, but that doesn’t alter the cold hard facts. Within an overall declining market, it is still possible for some pubs to prosper, and it is clear that the pain has not been spread at all evenly.

Phil has recently posted on his Oh Good Ale blog descriptions of some of his locals in the Chorlton-cum-Hardy area of Manchester, such as the Marble Beer House. Chorlton is a rarity in that in recent years the number of bars, and of cask ale outlets, has considerably expanded. Indeed it is that kind of area – prosperous, socially mixed, densely-populated, with a noticeable academic and bohemian element – where pubgoing is likely to survive most strongly. There are plenty of similar areas in London, where I get the impression that pubgoing remains noticeably more healthy than in much of the rest of the country. Contrast that with less well-off Manchester suburbs such as Longsight and Openshaw where most, if not all, of the pubs have now disappeared.

The pub and bar scene in Manchester City Centre gives an impression of health, but that is much less so in the satellite towns. I have written before about the devastation of the pub stock in Ashton-under-Lyne. Stockport has done better, but even here there has been a steady drip-drip of closures and there are currently probably at least five pubs in the town centre that give the impression of clinging on for their life.

It is also very obvious from looking at the closed pubs on Google StreetView that the big, purpose-built pubs from the 30s, 50s and 60s, whether roadhouse or estate pub, seem to have fared worst of all – possibly for reasons discussed here, a combination of always being a little soulless and being on spacious sites that appeal to developers.

Outside of the conurbations, in small towns, villages and the countryside, there is surely much more pain to come. Pretty much every non-motorway road journey of any length reveals a fresh pub that is closed and boarded. Now, obviously it is possible to find enterprisingly-run pubs that succeed in locations where many others fail, but even if you are bucking the trend, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a trend.

The question is whether the next ten years will bring just a further thinning-out of pubs, leaving fewer but stronger still standing, or whether we will end up with a situation where large tracts of the country, urban as much as rural, in effect have no pubs at all, as the term is usually understood, and pubgoing will cease to be anything remotely approaching a universal experience. And, of course, in some run-down inner urban areas, that is already pretty much the case.

Thursday 26 August 2010

The truth will out

Obviously the guardian of political correctness and received wisdom at the BBC had a day off and this article about the decline of the pub trade in South Wales somehow slipped through the net.

Licensee Colin Davies of the Clydach Vale Hotel, Tonypandy, is quoted as saying:

“It's terrible and these are sad times for everyone.

“In my opinion, it all comes from the smoking ban. We really noticed a huge difference. Our customers just stopped coming.

“People in the valleys don't want a gastro pub - they want somewhere they can come and have a drink, a smoke and chat.

“I'm lucky - I've just finished paying off my pub's mortgage. If I hadn't, I think we'd be closed now. Two more pubs have closed here and I know of others that are struggling.

“Once these pubs are gone, they usually just become derelict and it affects everyone. People who have been meeting for years have to stay at home and for many, particularly older people, it becomes very lonely.”
That sounds all too typical of the experience of working-class communities the length and breath of Britain. Even Iain Loe of CAMRA grudgingly admits that the smoking ban might have had something to do with it. What a pity he didn’t recognise that three years ago, really.

However, all his comments about pubs diversifying to survive sound very much like pissing in the wind. If your core trade has fallen off a cliff, no amount of serving school dinners and running a post office will make your pub viable. And, of course, all too many pubs have gone the whole hog and diversified themselves into private residences.

Nutts to drinkers

When he was sacked as the government’s chief drugs adviser last year, Professor David Nutt was widely portrayed as someone who had had the temerity to stand up for a liberal, common-sense approach and had been punished for his outspokenness. But it was pointed out at the time that he was not so much pro-drugs as viscerally anti-alcohol, and this is underlined by his latest thoughts on alcohol policy, which have been given a thorough fisking by the Filthy Smoker on the Devil’s Knife blog.

Like many in the anti-drink lobby, he deliberately misinterprets the concept of real terms prices, and I’m sure drinkers will give a warm welcome to his proposal that the price of alcoholic drinks should be “gradually” tripled over a five-year period. Oh joy, the £10 pint beckons!

Nine months further on, this suggests that the government of the day were quite right to give him the boot as he is clearly an extreme neo-Prohibitionist and not someone who should be given any say in the formulation of public policy. As the FS says, “I never thought I'd sympathise with Alan Johnson but I'm starting to see why he sacked this dolt.”

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Closing time

One of the benefits of Google Street View is that you can pull up an image of pretty much any pub, anywhere in the country. And, sad to say, a depressingly large number of them show up as being closed and boarded. I’ve accumulated something of a collection of these links and thought I would set up another blog called Closed Pubs to which I could progressively add them. Obviously this won’t appeal to those who view the world through rose-tinted beer goggles, but all it is is a record of what can (or could) be seen on the ground. If you have any more suggestions for inclusion, please let me know.

Buy that man a pint!

Good news today - for once - that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond is apparently “minded” to reject the call in the North Review to reduce the UK drink-driving limit to 50mg.

A source close to Mr Hammond said: “The minister is very sceptical indeed about this idea. The majority of people who cause fatal car accidents are so far over the limit that lowering it won't make any difference.”
I have to say when he initially expressed scepticism about it a couple of months ago I had my fingers crossed – but we will have to wait until the formal policy announcement before it can be regarded as absolutely certain.

This will give a lifeline to thousands of pubs outside major town centres whose licensees must have been very fearful for their survival had the proposal been implemented. But the ever-growing reluctance of responsible younger people to drive after consuming any alcohol whatsoever is likely to lead to a continued leaching of trade away from pubs in the coming years. This is despite the fact that the legal limit hasn’t changed and in fact is probably enforced less intensively now than it was in the heyday of pubs in the late Seventies.

The report quotes Carole Whittingham, of the Campaign against Drinking and Driving, whose son was killed by a drink-driver, as saying: “We are extremely disappointed. Studies have shown that reducing the limit would reduce deaths on the roads.” But it would be interesting to know the blood-alcohol level of the driver who killed her son. I would be surprised if it hadn’t been well above the current limit, and thus already thoroughly illegal. This argument is very much like advocating the reduction of a reasonable 40 mph speed limit to 30 mph because boy-racers who couldn’t care for any limit are bombing through at 80.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Walking away

It pains me to write this, but last night, in one of my favourite pubs, I saw a couple walk away from the bar and out of the door because they hadn’t been served after a long wait. The pub was busy enough, but by no means heaving, and there was a mixture of causes – not quite enough staff, staff being too local-friendly, staff not being fully aware of what’s going on “on the other side”. But, whatever the reason, it’s a disgrace – no good pub should ever see customers leave because they can’t get served quickly enough. The legendary Arthur Gosling of the Royal Oak in Didsbury – long since retired, but fortunately still with us – would be appalled.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Stick to the knitting

Not entirely surprising news that Adnams’ Cellar & Kitchen chain is finding trading tough going. This is a bizarre project involving setting up shops combining high-end wine and kitchenware. History is littered with examples of companies diversifying into areas that are outside their core business and area of expertise, and ending up falling flat on their face. And the idea of juxtaposing wine and kitchenware sounds like something dreamed up by marketing consultants after a very long lunch. What next – Westons setting up a chain called “Spade & Press” combining cider with garden tools? When I first heard of the concept I thought “that sounds like a recipe for failure.”

Also disappointing to see them whingeing about progressive beer duty. If they’re worried about tiny micro breweries eating into their trade they must be doing something fundamentally wrong. By definition, unless your production volumes remain very low, you don’t benefit much if at all from PBD.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Non beardy beer

There was an unusual request recently on the CAMRA forum from someone (whom I actually know from another forum) asking for any suggestions as to where he could get McEwan’s Best Scotch in the Derby area (you might have to register on the forum to read the link). Once the discussion had progressed beyond the usual “why would you want to drink that anyway?” it was established that it wasn’t available outside its traditional North-East heartland and even there it was confined to a dwindling number of working men’s clubs and “old men’s pubs”.

If you go in those kinds of establishment around here you may still find from time to time obscure keg brands that you thought had died the death or had never heard of in the first place, such as John Smith’s Chestnut Mild and Walkers Bitter. Some independent brewers produce keg beers for the club trade that do not exist in cask form – for example, Robinson’s own and brew the Wards brand, once very popular in Sheffield.

On my recent trip to Scotland it was noticeable that pretty much all the keg ales on offer on the bar were “zombie brands” that you never see anywhere else. Anyone fancy a Younger’s Tartan or a Calders 70/-? The only keg ale you would see south of the border was John Smith’s Extra Smooth. There were also “zombie lagers” such as McEwan’s Lager – indeed it could be argued that the best-selling but largely Scotland-only Tennent’s Lager is itself something of a zombie brand.

While there’s a wealth of information available about the availability and taste profile of cask beers, there’s effectively no equivalent for their keg counterparts, which often continue to reflect interesting facets of beer’s social history. So there might be some interesting stuff in the book that is mentioned in the forum thread – the Non Beardy Beer Book, although a glance at a few entries on their website suggests a rather jokey approach light on hard facts. This is what they have to say about McEwan’s Best Scotch (they can’t spell it correctly either). Even so, I might see if I can find a copy going cheap on eBay.

“Best Scotch” was (and to a limited extent still is) the staple ale of the North-East, a dark, lightly-hopped, malty brew that occupied the same place as bitter in the marketplace, but in reality was more akin to a strong mild. The other well-known brand was Lorimer’s, marketed by Vaux but produced for decades at the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh which they owned. This was transferred to Vaux’s own plant in Sunderland in the mid-1980s, but I don’t know whether it’s still brewed at all or, if it is, where.

Monday 16 August 2010

Cheap booze crackdown “doomed”

Interesting report in the Daily Mirror (of all places) that an internal Home Office report has shown little support for the government’s alcohol pricing plans. In fact, more people thought that a ban on “irresponsible promotions” should be confined to the on-trade, which rather goes against the promotion of the pub as the home of responsible consumption.

It is clear that, in the minds of the general public, by far the biggest alcohol-related problem in society is late-night disorder in town and city centres, which is overwhelmingly associated with on-trade consumption. If people want to wreck their livers in the comfort of their own homes, that is seen as their own problem, not a wider social issue.

While “pre-loading” does take place, it must amount overall for only a tiny proportion of off-trade alcohol purchases, and to penalise the responsible majority for the sins of the minority would be unreasonable. However, that did seem to be the stock-in-trade of New Labour policy on many fronts for thirteen years. And, if drunks out and about in town centres have been pre-loading, somebody has still sold them more drink in the on-trade, unless they wandered out of the house ratarsed.

It’s always someone else who is an irresponsible drinker, and once people realise they’re being expected to pay more, indeed a lot more, for their slabs of Carling and 3-for-a-tenner Aussie Chardonnay they’re unlikely to be too keen on the idea.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Fear of flavour

My local Hydes pub recently had Marble Manchester Bitter on as a guest beer, and it’s no exaggeration to say it was possibly the best pint of beer I’ve drunk this year. I’ve expressed scepticism before as to whether wall-to-wall hops are necessarily a good thing, but this was a superb example of a pale and uncompromisingly hoppy beer that at the same time had an underlying malt balance. It’s often said that brewers of widely-available beers have to some extent dumb them down so that they don’t shock drinkers’ palates, but is that really true? Would Manchester Bitter fall flat on its face if presented as the staple “ordinary bitter” in a tied estate of 500 pubs? Actually, I don’t think so – rather I suspect offering such a distinctive, high-quality brew would enhance the owning brewery’s reputation.

It tends to be put down as an inevitable consequence of growing older and more cynical, but I genuinely believe that most widely-available cask beers have become blander over the past thirty years. In particular, back in those days, the North-West bitters produced by Boddingtons, Holts and Yates & Jackson were often genuinely, uncompromisingly bitter in a way only a few micro beers are today. Yet those were the staple beers in pubs frequented by ordinary folk, not beer buffs. Yates & Jackson is now only a memory, Boddingtons a pale, transplanted shadow of its former self and Holts, while still an excellent beer when on form, falls much more into the category of having a good balance of malt and hops. In an age when the default pint of choice has become cooking lager, might it actually help brewers’ sales if they introduced more individuality into their regular cask beers?

Friday 13 August 2010

Beer and wine consumption

There's an interesting pair of graphs on Mark Wadsworth’s blog showing beer and wine consumption in Britain from 1961 to 2005. For some reason, they’re in “short tons”, which is a measure of weight, not volume (I think there are around 7 barrels in a short ton), but the message is very clear. Wine shows a constant, steady growth, but equally, just look at the way beer consumption grew up to its peak in 1979. Since then, it has declined, with a sharp fall in the early 80s when so much thirst-inducing heavy industry was eliminated, but not catastrophically so. Indeed, since around 1992, it just seems to have bumped along at a roughly constant level. Compare that with the table I posted recently showing a decline of over 40% in on-trade beer sales since 1997. So it would appear there hasn’t been a massive overall fall in beer sales, but rather a substantial shift from on- to off-trade consumption.

The demise of the pub

Hat-tip to The Southport Drinker for pointing out this poignant collection of photos by Chris Etchells on “the demise of the Great British Pub”. There are more on Chris’ website here.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Common sense in “Guardian” shock

One of the benefits of public expenditure cuts is the axe that has been taken to all those hectoring, patronising government advertisements. Now, you might have thought that telling ordinary people how to live their lives would be a popular cause amongst Guardianistas, but ZoĆ« Williams in today’s paper seems to have seen at least a chink of light:

Diet initiatives, especially the Change4Life campaign, are much more controversial, even though this one looks cute and straightforward, with its multicoloured morph men telling you to eat more sweetcorn. On a food-swap wheel distributed in GPs' surgeries and children's centres, it told people to swap squash for a smoothie, when smoothies are 57 times more expensive than squash and also much more calorific. What it ultimately looked like was an attempt not to improve national health but to replicate the middle-class diet across the entire population – to say, in other words, that the reason you are obese is that you are insufficiently middle-class. Likewise, the Start4Life campaign attempted to recreate the "middle-class habit", although only 1% of the population does it, of exclusively breastfeeding their baby for the first six months.

Screw the poor

Many people were hoping that the new coalition government might demonstrate a significantly less bullying and authoritarian approach to public policy than its predecessor. Now, I have argued in the past that, at least on issues of “lifestyle freedom”, a change of government was unlikely to bring much respite. And so it has proven, with David Cameron expressing qualified support for the Greater Manchester local authorities’ crack-brained plan to impose a minimum unit price for alcohol in their area. This was clearly an instinctive response and reveals his true colours to be those of a patronising, authoritarian snob rather than anything that could even be vaguely called a libertarian. And his reference to “tins of Stella” really showed him to be someone in touch with what is happening on the street.

As I have repeatedly pointed out before, minimum pricing is an extremely inefficient and broad-brush method of dealing with “problem drinking” (whatever that may be) and would in practice have a significant impact on the wallets of less well-off families, even if they kept within official drinking guidelines. Hell, a few months ago, I even heard the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who is hardly a liberal in the true sense of the word, arguing against it on those grounds.

Now I can’t really see Cameron pressing ahead with this once Sir Terry Leahy’s tanks are drawn up on his lawn, let alone the fact that it is totally illegal under both UK and EU competition law. And hopefully, by bringing the “Tory snob” factor into the debate on minimum pricing, it will help expose the idea as a direct attack on the lifestyles and living standards of the poor, and make it less likely to happen, not more.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Success is still possible

The main roads through West Yorkshire are notable for the large number of closed pubs and Indian restaurants in former pubs. So I was struck the other week when driving past the Turnpike Inn at Rishworth near Ripponden, at about 7.30 pm on a Friday evening, to see the pub’s car park completely full, and large numbers of cars parked at the roadside and on the verges. This is a formerly closed pub that has been revitalised in the past year, as reported here by the Morning Advertiser.

Clearly the Turnpike is a pub that majors on food, but they must be doing a lot right to bring in so many customers, and it’s always good to see a business venture proving successful. Looking at the menus, it’s not at all cheap, either. (The menus are also notable for their “round pound” pricing.) I’d like to bet, though, that, despite its obvious popularity, the Turnpike is nonetheless selling a lot less beer than it did in previous incarnations in the 60s and 70s. But it does prove the point that, even in an overall declining market, you can still be very successful by providing something that people are prepared to make the effort to come for.

The one pub operator who are proving a success on a national scale where others are falling by the wayside is, of course, Wetherspoon’s. Now, as I’ve said before, on a personal level I am lukewarm about the chain. To me, they’re just not proper pubs in the sense that pubs like the Nursery, Arden Arms, Griffin and Davenport Arms are; they are impersonal, echoing, eating and drinking barns. But you can’t argue with success, and they are opening new pubs at a rapid rate, while it’s rare to go in a Spoons and not find it busy. They have done so by ripping up the established orthodoxies of the pub trade, and by actually taking the trouble to research what customers want. The company is also very adept at site location and playing the property market.

If other pubs want to compete successfully with a nearby Wetherspoon’s, they have to do at least one thing markedly better. The days of the nondescript, bog-standard town-centre pub are over.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Hazel Grove when the new Wetherspoon’s, the Wilfred Wood, opens at the end of this month. The main road through the village has no less than eight Robinson’s pubs in about half a mile, many of which are distinctly down-at-heel and forgettable. Will the Spoons put some of them out of business, or will it increase the total pub market in Hazel Grove?

Monday 9 August 2010

More hard truths

Sorry to disappoint those who have been calling for a bit more sweetness and light on this blog, but the table below from The Publican showing quarterly on-trade beer sales since the beginning of 1997 (in ’000s of bulk barrels) gives precious little ground for optimism. Compared with the same quarter the year before, sales have not risen in a single quarter for thirteen years. So I doubt whether John Clarke is going to be able to take me up any day soon on my offer to buy him a skinful of beer if any future quarterly sales figures show annual growth.

In 1997, total sales were 25.6 million barrels, but for the year from July 2009 to June 2010 they were down to 14.8 million, a fall of 42.1%. The biggest single fall was 10.6% between April-June 2007 – the last quarter before the implementation of the smoking ban – and the same quarter in 2008. July 2007 to June 2008 was 8.3% below the preceding 12 months, and the most recent 12 months continue to show a 6.0% fall. The lowest year-on-year fall since the smoking ban has been 4.5%.

This is not doom-mongering: it is pointing out a hard truth that supporters of pubs need to face up to. While obviously there are some pubs here and there doing well, being honest, for the trade as a whole there is nothing to suggest that things are going to turn around in the foreseeable future.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Gone in a flash

The five years from 1997 to 2002 saw an incredible expansion of the numbers of speed cameras in the UK. Scarcely a day passed without some report about speed cameras in the news. They were, apparently, ushering in a new era of road safety, and all reputable commentators were agreed that, like them or not, they were “here to stay”. The late Paul Smith, founder of the Safe Speed campaign, recognised them from the start as a counter-productive quack remedy, but was widely dismissed as something of a crank.

But what is happening now? They’re dropping like ninepins. Swindon led the way, and other authorities such as Oxfordshire and Wiltshire are following. Obviously this is in response to government budget cuts, but if local councils genuinely believed they were effective, surely they would be fighting to keep them and cutting other areas of expenditure instead. In reality, cuts are being used as a cover to beat a retreat from a discredited and unpopular policy. And, despite the shroud-waving anguish from pressure groups such as BRAKE and RoadPeace, I would confidently forecast that we’ll see a further fall in road fatalities in 2010, following the very encouraging figures in 2009. I’m sure Paul Smith will be looking down from above and feeling thoroughly vindicated.

And this underlines the point that, however permanent and entrenched something seems to be, it is not a law of nature that anything endures forever. You don’t have to “accept it” and “move on”. Nobody can predict whether the wheel may turn full circle. No doubt in the early 1920s US Prohibition was widely seen as “here to stay”. But it wasn’t.

Drink-drive deaths at record low

Hat-tip to RedNev for reporting the welcome news that road deaths attributed to drink-driving fell to a record low in 2009. Let us hope this gives further ammunition to Philip Hammond and Mike Penning to reject the call of the North Review for a cut in the drink-driving limit. The report I linked to suggests the encouraging trend has continued in the first quarter of 2010.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Holed below the waterline?

Some gloomy, but sadly all too realistic words here from Robert Sayles about the decline of beer sales in the on-trade. He describes the 6.3% year-on-year fall that I referred to the other day as “calamitous”.

The tied sector is, it must be said, looking increasingly uncompetitive in comparison. It is an unpalatable fact but many of us are now in the business of selling a product that less and less want to buy, at a price that less and less can afford to pay. Hardly a recipe for long term success, is it?

For the first time I have to say I am genuinely fearful of what lies ahead, we are in freefall with little sign of respite. An imminent rise in VAT, increasing pressure on disposable income, high unemployment and inevitable increases in beer prices ensure that difficult times lie ahead.
I have never claimed that the smoking ban was a monocausal explanation for the decline of pubs, as obviously it began well before 2007. I set out a number of reasons for it here. However, the ban has undoubtedly made matters much worse, and to my mind Sayles understates its impact. But it is clear from what he says that the underlying problem of the pub industry is not business structure or incompetent licensees, but a straightforward lack of demand.

There’s no easy answer or quick fix, but the last thing that is needed is government measures making things worse. The pub industry might well feel that Ronald Reagan had it right when he said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I'm here to help.’”

Pubs as we know them are not going to disappear completely, but it’s easy to see them over the next twenty years being cut back to a small rump that only exists in the kind of socially mixed, prosperous urban areas that provide the environment and culture to support them. There are many pubs still open but obviously doing a very thin trade that must be candidates for further closures in the future. I remember the days when, approaching the door of many pubs, you would be worried whether you would be able to get a seat. All too often nowadays, the worry is more that you’ll be the only customer.

And, sadly, CAMRA, happily ensconced in their love-in at Earl’s Court this week, cannot or will not see it, and continue to delude themselves that once hard times are past a somewhat smaller, but revitalised pub industry will spring forth.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Unlikely champion

I was astonished to read that, as part of his campaign for the Labour leadership, David Miliband had decided to pose as the defender of pubs. Now Miliband strikes me as the kind of patronising, upper-middle-class Hampstead socialist who actually finds the working classes in the flesh deeply distasteful, and who has never had a good session in a pub in his life. And it is a bit rich coming from someone who previously served in a government that had spent thirteen years doing its best to do down the pub trade, and all too often seemed to see pubs as a toxic health hazard rather than a valuable community resource.

While there may be issues with the pub company tie and planning law, the fundamental problem with the pub trade today is not one of structure but of lack of demand. If demand was strong, nobody would be too concerned about the tie and very few would be trying to get a change of use for pubs. Pubs are struggling and closing because not enough people want to go to them. Some of that is due to social trends, but much stems from specific government actions.

The way I see it, any government with any interest in standing up for the pub trade should do the following:
  1. Amend the smoking ban to allow for separate indoor smoking areas if licensees wish
  2. Undertake not to cut the drink-driving limit
  3. Abandon the alcohol duty escalator
  4. Stop all this hysterical lying anti-drink propaganda that claims three pints in a session is a binge and eleven pints a week makes you a hazardous drinker
And then, apart from that, leave pubs alone. No new laws, no new initiatives, no new restrictions, no new red tape.

And would Miliband do any of that? If not, his posture as a champion of pubs is hypocrisy of the most contemptible kind. I must say I’m inclined to agree with Mr Eugenides’ blunt assessment here.

Monday 2 August 2010

Illegal and unworkable

...but that doesn’t stop the Greater Manchester local authorities once again proposing to introduce a 50p minimum unit price for alcohol within the boundaries of the former county.

Calum Irving, from Manchester-based prohibitionist alcohol awareness pressure group Our Life said: “If you are a sensible drinker you will hardly be affected.
What utter drivel. Let us assume a family each week buy 8x440ml cans of 5% lager at £6, and two 750ml bottles of 13% wine at £3.49 each. If there are two adults, this would not mean anyone exceeding the “recommended” limits. But the proposal would mean the lager would cost £8.80, and each bottle of wine £4.88, thus increasing their weekly bill by £5.58, or £290 a year. Hardly small beer to someone on a low income.

I discussed this here back in March when it last surfaced. The authorities don’t have the power to do this, and anyway it would be illegal under competition law. It would also obviously lead to a vast amount of cross-border shopping for alcohol, including proxy purchases for friends and neighbours. And if you were going over the border to get your booze, you might well end up doing the rest of your weekly shop there, too. A better way of damaging the grocery trade within Greater Manchester is hard to imagine.

Ironically, it would hurt the poor most, as not only are they the biggest consumers of cheaper drinks, but they are also least likely to have access to a car. It’s only a quick fifteen-minute drive for me to Tesco at Handforth Dean, just over the Cheshire border.

It won’t happen, of course, but in a way I’d almost like to see them make a serious try, as it would end up being such a total disaster that it would set back the neo-Prohibitionist cause for decades.

The comments on the Evening News article I linked to make amusing reading.

Sunday 1 August 2010

How do you get to the pub?

I recently concluded a survey asking “What means of transport have you used to visit pubs in the past month?” There were 96 responses, of which 21 (22%) said they had not visited a pub at all. The remaining 75 were broken down as follows:

Foot: 64 (85%)
Pedal cycle: 10 (13%)
Motorcycle: 1 (1%)
Car, as driver: 28 (37%)
Car, as passenger: 25 (33%)
Taxi: 19 (25%)
Bus: 36 (48%)
Train or tram: 34 (45%)

So, a wide variety of choices there, including one solitary motorcyclist. Interesting that 15% of people who had actually visited a pub did not have one within walking distance that they thought worth going to. I would also like to know how much overlap there is between car drivers and passengers.

Glimmers in the darkness

According to the British Beer and Pub Association, total UK beer sales actually grew by 2.9% in April-June 2010, compared with the same quarter last year, the first such like-for-like increase for four years. However, beer sales in pubs continued to fall, being 6.3% down on the previous year. They were higher than in January-March, but surely that happens every year, as the post-Christmas period is traditionally one of sales doldrums, and more people go out once the weather warms up a bit. The widespread snowfalls in January won’t have helped either. That can hardly be regarded as cause for celebration.

So, mildly encouraging news that people are ignoring the Righteous anti-drink hysteria and actually getting a bit more beer down their necks, but scant consolation for the pub trade, which continues to suffer from a tide of legislative and social trends running strongly against it. If volumes continue to decline at 6.3% a year, they will halve in ten years.

Wet-led and rural

The BBPA’s submission in response to the North Review understandably concentrated on the dining trade in rural pubs. However, more pubs than many urbanites might imagine survive in rural areas that are “wet-led”. Some do serve a bit of food, but drink and chat is their primary purpose. Over the years, many have closed (such as the amazingly basic Hop Pole at Risbury in Herefordshire) or have been “improved” into conventional food-led pubs, but if you know where to look a surprising number can still be found, especially once you escape from the orbit of the big towns.

Most of rural Cheshire is too close to the major conurbations for pubs of this type to survive, although the Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham and the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth (first picture) are honourable exceptions. Go further south into deepest Staffordshire and they are more numerous, such as the Anchor at High Offley (second picture) and the Red Lion at Dayhills near Stone. Other well-known examples that spring to mind include the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton in Derbyshire, the Case is Altered at Rowington in Warwickshire and the Square & Compass at Worth Matravers in Dorset.

One pub of this kind only just outside the Greater Manchester conurbation is Sam Smiths’ Vine at Dunham Woodhouses, which does serve food but seems to mainly function as a locals’ meeting place. It isn’t a pristine gem, but it remains a characterful, old-fashioned multi-roomed pub, not to mention serving Old Brewery Bitter at £1.49 a pint.

Often these pubs are fascinating, unspoilt time capsules and, as places that are the centre of a local community rather than venues for townies to drive out to for a meal, are amongst the most atmospheric and characterful of all pubs. But it is this sort of establishment that would be most at risk from a reduction in the drink-driving limit. I am not suggesting that at present they are heavily used by drink-drive offenders – the police will be well aware of their existence and their customers will have to develop their own modus vivendi of visting them without endangering their driving licences.

The pub descriptions in the Good Beer Guide often make politically correct noises about certain rural pubs being “popular with walkers and cyclists”, and no doubt up to a point they are. However, with a few exceptions (such as maybe the two pubs in Edale) that will only be a significant source of trade on a few sunny summer weekends. There aren’t many walkers and cyclists around on cold, rainy November evenings. In any case, many of the walkers and cyclists out and about in the countryside on a summer Sunday will have first travelled out from a town by car.

(Incidentally, both photos are my own, not just ones grabbed from Google Images)