Thursday 30 August 2012

Trouble breeds trouble

Over the past fifteen years, we’ve lost about a third of the pubs that previously existed in the UK. You might expect that to lead to a general thinning out of the distribution of pubs, with most of the losses being in areas with a high concentration. However, in fact we have seen the opposite, and pubs have become considerably more concentrated. Large areas of residential development, and of countryside, are now completely devoid of pubs, while in other areas they seem to cluster ever more thickly, with the number actually having grown over that period.

In some places this produces a positive outcome, with a thriving pubgoing culture leading to greater success all round. I have written about this before in connection with York, and it can be seen more locally both in the Northern Quarter of Manchester City Centre and in the prosperous urban enclave of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. As I said in that post, “the existence of good pubs encourages an interest in beer and pubgoing and creates a virtuous circle that leads other pubs to thrive”.

However, this process can have a downside too. Many of our cities and larger towns have seen the development of a strip of youth-oriented bars, often playing loud music and predominantly catering for stand-up drinking, which have come to be recognised as regular trouble-spots. It doesn’t take a degree in sociology to appreciate that the disorder and the edgy atmosphere to some extent feeds off itself and intensifies to an extent that would not happen if it was just a case of a single bar.

This blinding insight has now been spotted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who have produced a report suggesting that:

“local authorities should use planning powers to encourage a “dispersal” of bars and clubs aimed at 18 to 24-year-olds to tackle binge drinking”.
The report found that
“young people actively sought out ‘clusters’ of youth-orientated bars and a concentration of ‘clusters’ in the North-East formed part of the reason for young people to drink more than they originally intended.”
If bars aimed at young people were more spread out, there can be little doubt that the weekend atmosphere in town centres would be improved. But, on the other hand, while planning restrictions can stop bars opening in specific locations, they can’t be relied upon to get them to open in places the operators don’t want to go. Stopping new town-centre bars isn’t going to breathe new life into moribund suburban locals. And, even if you do succeed in spreading bars out, the residents of the areas they are dispersed to may not be too happy about it. It’s almost like stepping back into a vanished era, but I can remember at least two long-closed suburban “nitespots” in and around Stockport that were a perennial source of complaint from locals. Creating dedicated town-centre entertainment zones was to some extent a deliberate policy to concentrate “nuisance” and keep it away from residential areas.

However, it seems to me that the Rowntree Foundation are rather wide of the mark to suggest that bars should encourage non alcohol related activities such as live music or dancing, as surely those are precisely the factors that help stoke the febrile atmosphere. If you want to apply qualitative criteria in an attempt to reduce alcohol-related disorder, surely the key things are to have pubs and bars which are more compartmentalised and less open-plan, where music is subdued or non-existent, and where a high proportion of the clientele are seated. But I know very well that trying to bring that about through the planning process is much like legislating for water to flow uphill.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Fetch more corks

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has called on the government to do more to tackle alcohol smuggling and duty evasion. However, I can’t help thinking they’re missing the point, and what they’re demanding is akin to trying to stop up a gushing hosepipe with a cork. The answer, surely, is in their own hands. Reduce or eliminate the disparity in duty between the UK and our European neighbours, and the problem will disappear. Until that happens, the smuggling will continue.

And tell me, chaps, how are they getting along with fighting tobacco smuggling?

Sunday 26 August 2012

Heard at the bar

In one of the dwindling number of proper pubs remaining in Cheshire:

The barmaid mentions that they now have John Smiths on. So one drinker, a few minutes later, says, “Pint of John Smith’s, please.” The barmaid says “It’s on cask, you know.” So he replies, “Hmm, I’ll have Tetley’s, then” – the Tetley’s being smooth.

Guy leaving the pub, dressed in motorcycle leathers and carrying a helmet. Barmaid asks “Do you have a bike, then?” He replies, “No, I just walk around like this for fun.”

Saturday 25 August 2012

It’s the dogs!

To be honest, I’m more of a cat person than a dog person. But I’ve been struck by an undercurrent in various comments that people really don’t like seeing dogs in pubs. So I thought I would create a poll to see what people think. And no, there wasn’t a hidden agenda about children in pubs, which one commenter seemed to suggest.

The poll shows a very clear majority of over four to one in favour of (well-behaved) dogs, which accords with my own view. To take your dog to the pub suggests that you see it in a positive way as somewhere for unwinding and socialising. Most dogs, in my experience, just hide under the table and keep out of the way. Only this lunchtime I saw a guy with a black poodle which I didn’t even notice until he walked out with it.

And, even if some customers object to dogs, surely the answer is to confine them to one room, not exclude them entirely.

On the other hand, some people see them as smelly and unhealthy and would want to see them banned everywhere.

Stuck on the slow line

Some surprise has been expressed that the petition to scrap the beer duty escalator is crawling along on the slow line, still below 90,000, while that urging the government to reconsider its decision to take the West Coast rail franchise away from Virgin Trains has stormed through 100,000 in a couple of weeks.

By the general standards of government e-petitions, 89,000 is a very respectable number, but I can think of several possible reasons for this relative lack of traction:

  1. To the man (or woman) in the pub, the issue isn't as clear-cut as you or I might think. “Freeze beer duty until the next election” would have been a more easily grasped message – which of course is the equivalent of what fuel tax campaigners are now asking for.
  2. The petition has lacked mass-media exposure. No national newspaper or TV channel has taken it up, which is important in getting the message across to the general public.
  3. The escalator applies to all forms of alcoholic drinks, so perhaps the petition would have been better worded to refer to the “alcohol duty escalator”, thus giving consumers of wine, spirits and cider more reason to sign it.
Of course, if you think that’s bad, the petition against minimum alcohol pricing has so far reached the grand total of 183 signatures.

It also seems to me that some of the core arguments in favour of the petition are not wholly convincing. In his open letter to Chloe Smith, Roger Protz says:

The reality is that the government loses far more than £35m every year as a result of the impact of the eye-watering levels of duty and VAT levied on beer, brewing and pub retailing. Every time the government increases duty, fewer people go to the pub. When the consumption of beer goes down, less duty is paid to the Treasury. The same holds true for VAT.
However, although each 2% on duty will bring in less than 2% extra revenue, as it suppresses demand to some extent, we are still a long way from the point where increasing duty leads to an absolute reduction in revenue. (A point which has now been reached with tobacco duty)

It is also incorrect to say that the escalator uniquely impacts on the pub trade. In fact, as margins are much greater in the on-trade than the off-trade, each increase in duty has a greater proportionate impact on the price of a bottle or can in the supermarket than a pint in the pub.

A pint of 4% beer currently bears duty plus VAT on duty of 53.2p. We have now had five years of the escalator so, without it, the duty would be 5 or 6p a pint lower. Obviously the escalator doesn’t help, but there are many reasons for the decline of pubs apart from price, and I don’t really see that 6p off a pint is really going to make much difference to their general viability. Indeed, as I have argued in the past, some sections of the pub trade seem to shoot themselves in the foot on the pricing issue.

Rather more convincing arguments against the escalator would be:

  1. Even on its own terms, it is unlikely to be effective in combating problem drinking. The demand for alcoholic drinks is fairly inelastic and, the higher the individual’s consumption, the less elastic it becomes
  2. Increasing prices will not simply reduce consumption – rather it will inevitably lead to an increase in smuggling and illegal alcohol production, often of very dubious quality
  3. The responsible consumption of alcoholic drinks is something that has been enjoyed for hundreds of years by a large majority of the adult population in this country, and it is fundamentally wrong and illiberal to impose punitive taxation on it
Maybe what is needed in the longer term is a campaign to align UK alcohol duties with the European average.

Friday 24 August 2012

Sent back to the bench

Back in the 60s and 70s, Robinson’s brewery in Stockport, while in many ways very traditionally run, had a penchant for doing up their pubs in a distinctive and rather unsympathetic modern style which came to be known as “Robinsonisation”. No doubt this came across as trendy and state-of-the-art in 1968, but by the mid-80s it looked very dated. Typical features included enlarging windows and putting in small rectangular panes including a few “bottle ends”, knocking through rooms with “Spanish arches”, banisters as internal dividers, the removal of much fixed seating in favour of stools or low chairs, and plain white artexed walls with a stippled or swirled pattern.

One by-product of this was the creation of some of the most characterless and unwelcoming pub rooms imaginable, with bare white walls and just four or six small tables surrounded by loose stools (!?), resembling nothing so much as the breakfast room in a downmarket B&B. I can think of at least three pubs that at some time had one of these in all its glory. In one – the Navigation in Marple – this scheme was later replaced by conventional fixed seating all around the walls, to the great improvement of both comfort and atmosphere.

However, in a recent refurbishment, which has been trumpeted in the company magazine, the fixed seating has been ripped out again and replaced by loose chairs, albeit this time in a darker colour scheme. This means the room has less seating capacity and is much less “pubby” in feel. It continues to baffle me why interior designers continue to see fixed seating as such an undesirable feature – I suspect, deep down, it is because they want pubs to look less like, well, pubs. It also in this case seems to reflect upmarket aspirations that might be more at home in a rural dining pub than a town centre local.

Interestingly, on this occasion, the Railway half a mile down the road, which has a smart 1990s interior scheme with a wealth of wall benches, was markedly busier. Maybe that should tell them something.

On the other hand, the Blossoms in Heaviley, Stockport, which Robinson’s have themed as an “Ale Shrine”, has had the two former vault-style rooms at the front, one containing a pool table, restyled into traditional lounges with benches all around the walls, so obviously someone recognises it can be a good idea.

Thursday 23 August 2012

That vital 0.2%

On my most recent visit to Tesco I did a quick check on the shelves of the alcoholic strengths of the big-selling premium lager brands, with the following results:

  • 4.8%: Stella, Carlsberg Export, Budweiser, Becks, Tesco Imported Premium Lager
  • 5.0%: Holsten, Grolsch, Kronenbourg 1664, Heineken, San Miguel

Tesco have obviously brought their own-brand product down to the level of Stella because they feel they will gain little in sales by keeping it at the higher strength.

You have to wonder whether it’s only a matter of time before all of the popular brands are cut to 4.8% as part of the “responsibility deal”. That in itself may not seem the end of the world, but is it really going to stop there?

I can imagine Heineken in particular being rather resistant to that, as they promote their product as a standardised international brand and are keen to banish memories of the piss-weak “Cold Filtered” variant.

If that’s not strong enough, Tesco will sell you, for example, bottles of Baltika from Russia at 5.5% or Tyskie or Zywiec from Poland at 5.6%.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Get on the bus

The BBC reports:

A row has broken out over whether English towns should encourage Scottish drinkers to visit on “booze runs”.

Northumberland County Council's Labour Group said a “golden opportunity” to run a campaign to lure drinkers from north of the border could be missed.

However, Alnwick Conservative Councillor Gordon Castle said the idea was “irresponsible”.

Well, whether or not you promote it, it will still happen if there’s any meaningful differential in price. If there’s a 50p minimum price in Scotland, and none south of the border, the potential savings will be enormous. Even if there was only a 10p differential, that would still be £2.80 on a bottle of whisky and £3.20 on a slab of Stella, so you wouldn’t need many of those in the back of a white van to make it worthwhile.

And, of course, any Scot heading south of the border on his normal business will inevitably be asked by friends and relatives to pick up a few bottles and cans while he’s there.

Ooh, and look what there is on the north side of Berwick right next to the A1 and just a couple of miles from the border. How convenient! (Carlisle ASDA is similarly well placed by the M6)

A good thing they haven’t banned Schadenfreude yet.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

It was the other boy wot done it!

More pathetic appeasement here from Greene King expressing support for a 45-50p per unit minimum price for alcohol. This is a classic case of trying to get the government to penalise other sections of the industry in the hope that you might benefit from it. For all their weasel words about promoting responsible drinking, it’s really naked self-interest.

It will all end in tears, of course, as the idea that “responsible” pubs will somehow be immune from anti-drink policies is frankly delusional. Indeed, I’ve argued before that, the more alcohol is denormalised, the more its consumption will retreat from public to private spaces. I’ve also had Greene King products for well below 50p/unit as part of supermarket offers. Perhaps they should put their money where their mouth is and stop supplying Tesco. Anyway, yet another reason not to drink their beers.

The comment from Publican Sam (an occasional commenter on here) is well worth reading:

Well there's a surprise then, GK wouldn't welcome additional trade from north of the border ... even with such low representation in the Scottish market.

Minimum price should be fought at all costs, if for no other reason that the introduction of yet another 'stealth tax' on our industry once introduced will, on all probability, not be relinquished by hard-pressed Chancellors of whatever political hue.

Others have pointed out, and I will agree with them, that this might inevitably then lead to a minimum price 'escalator' and we all know what damage the duty escalator has done to the brewing and pub industry.

We are a disparate bunch with competing interests in the hospitality industry and GK are a prime example of this being both producer, managed operator and property landlord and until we can, with a united voice, say "enough is enough" then the nuMPties will continue to clobber us.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Handing back the keys

Well, I’ve finally relinquished any official position of responsibility within CAMRA. Some may say “what kept you?” but at last it has happened.

I have been a member of CAMRA for thirty years, and a Life Member for most of that period. I have put a great deal of effort into the organisation in various roles. I continue to have a very strong commitment to traditional British beer, breweries and pubs. Actually, my will still contains a substantial donation.

It has always been the case that you sign up to a pressure group because of a general fuzzy feeling about the relevant issue, not because of the specific policies, and CAMRA is no exception. If you had a general fondness for traditional pubs and beer, you would, in the early 80s, have happily joined CAMRA and turned a blind eye to all the leftie nonsense in the policy document about banning mass-media alcohol advertising.

However, in recent years, with the growth of anti-pub legislation and anti-drink sentiment, things have become more serious. I understand why CAMRA chose to remain neutral on the smoking ban, given that it was such a divisive issue, although to bewail the decline of pubs while at the same time refusing to condemn the ban is a distinctly hypocritical position. That was not, however, my make-or-break issue.

CAMRA’s response to all the further attacks on responsible drinking has been disappointingly weak and equivocal. Indeed, on some issues it has – shamefully – sought to make common cause with the anti-drink lobby, pathetically trying to claim “we are the good drinkers”, an argument that I doubt will cut much ice. When CAMRA refused to make combating the anti-drink lobby one of its key campaigning priorities, that was the last straw for me.

I also feel that the obvious enthusiasm of so many members for seeking out obscure beers within the “urban beer bubble” creates a self-perpetuating spiral of introspection. In a sense it has become a case of “we are all tickers now”. I despair when members say they have declined to participate in a pub crawl because of the lack of variety, even though most of the pubs concerned belonged to well-regarded family brewers.

Some might say “stay and fight your corner”, but in the absence of any clearly-defined group within CAMRA promoting a strong policy of opposition to the anti-drink lobby, that isn’t really a feasible option.

As a Life Member, resignation would be simply cutting off my nose to spite my face. So I will remain on the sidelines, read the magazines, use a few Spoons vouchers, attend the occasional local branch event (mostly the pub crawls), and enjoy a bittersweet touch of Schadenfreude every time a sacred cow is slaughtered by new legislation.

I continue to believe passionately in what CAMRA was originally set up to defend (this is emphatically a conservative/preservationist position, not a libertarian one). I have not left it; it has left me. If CAMRA ever manages to find a set of balls, they should know where to find me.

For what it’s worth, I’m not remotely bothered by the “craft keg” issue, which strikes me as a classic beer bubble storm in a teacup with minimal relevance to the wider world. There will always be prats in CAMRA who divide beer into “real ale” and “chemical fizz”, but I go by the wise words of founder member Michael Hardman that the organisation is fighting for something, not against something. I have yet to see a craft keg font outside the beer bubble.

I would also add that, if CAMRA had done nothing else, the creation of the National Inventory of unspoilt pub interiors would alone provide an abiding legacy.

It’s not going away

Last August I ran a poll entitled “The Ultimate Question” asking for people’s views on the issue of smoking in pubs and bars. The results can be seen here.

I’ve now repeated the poll a year later with exactly the same questions, with the results as shown on the right. There was a 43% increase in the total number of respondents, and virtually no change in both the number supporting the option of “let the market sort it out”, and the number supporting some form of liberalisation of the law, which is still 80% of the total. As before, just under 50% believed there was no need for any legislation on the subject.

On the other hand, although the numbers are small, there was an increase in the percentage supporting further restrictions, largely at the expense of those supporting the status quo. Presumably they want to put as many pubs out of business as possible. This would completely remove the figleaf of claiming that pubs still make provision for smokers. This suggests that if anything the debate is becoming more polarised. The table below shows a comparison of the two years’ results.

You may also be interested in this piece from me on the subject printed this month in the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Last orders please!

The current poll asking for your views on the issue of smoking in pubs and bars is coming to a close – I plan to take it down around midday tomorrow. It has already comfortably exceeded the number of responses gained by the identical poll last August but, whatever your view, don’t miss the opportunity to make your voice heard.

Friday 17 August 2012

Lost landmark

The Flouch Inn for many years was a well-known landmark on the main road from Manchester to Sheffield across the Woodhead Pass. About twenty-five years ago it was partially bypassed when the route of the A628 was aligned to a new roundabout a little further south, to which it still gives its name. I think it’s been closed for a few years now, in its final incarnation having been partially used as a Balti restaurant. Now it’s reported that the pub is to be demolished and the site redeveloped for housing.

The photo shows a handsome 1930s stone building, although rather marred by the later conservatory-type extension at the front. I may be wrong, but I don’t remember that being there in 1985 when, ironically, we tried to go in for some food on a Sunday and found it too full. That’s the nearest I ever came to actually going in it. Like many pubs in and around Sheffield, it was tied to Bass in those days.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Minimum reservations

It’s reported that the Office of Fair Trading has expressed reservations about the potential unintended consequences of the Government’s policy of minimum alcohol pricing. By increasing producers’ and retailers’ margins, it will make alcohol sales more lucrative and thus actually provide more of an incentive to promote alcoholic drinks – something I have pointed out before. It will also set a precedent for the extension of the principle to other sectors, so we will have the perverse situation of the authorities shedding crocodile tears about poverty while at the same time making a substantial proportion of poor people’s real-world shopping baskets dearer.

Of course, the EU competition authorities are still to pronounce on the legality of the scheme – there’s still a long way to go on this one.

Sunday 12 August 2012

An old companion

I recently obtained via eBay a copy of Frank Baillie’s classic book The Beer Drinker’s Companion, first published in 1973. Although dating from slightly after the formation of CAMRA, it is essentially a pre-CAMRA view of the British brewing industry. It says of the author (now deceased) on the back cover:
Frank Baillie assiduously researches the practical aspects of beer as a hobby, has drunk beer in thirty-six countries, and has drunk all the draught beers presently available as well as a great many keg and bottled beers.
I haven’t been able to find any kind of obituary on the Internet, but I have been told he was apparently a heroic toper.

It contains the usual descriptions of the method of brewing beer, the history and development of the brewing industry, and methods of dispense, which are now seen as commonplace, but at the time were quite revelatory. However, the centrepiece of the book are the detailed descriptions of the 88 independent breweries then in existence in the UK, with a potted history, full beer ranges and an indication of where their beers could be found. For some of the smaller breweries he is very specific about where their tied pubs were located.

This list – now, by my reckoning, whittled down to 38 survivors – includes breweries that barely made it into the CAMRA era such as Workington, Melbourns of Stamford, and Gray’s of Chelmsford, and also two odd little breweries just serving the off-trade, Cook’s in Essex and Hoskins of Leicester.

He mentions the four surviving home-brew pubs and also tells how there were a few more than just failed to make it through to the era of the real ale revival, most notably the Britannia in Loughborough where brewing only stopped in 1972.

By current standards, the tasting notes are very rudimentary. For example, Robinson’s Best Bitter is “quite a well hopped draught beer”, while Holt’s is “a well-balanced traditional brew”. He doesn’t acknowledge the existence of Robinson’s “Ordinary” bitter – had it not been introduced then, or did he just not notice it because it was in so few pubs?

One interesting point is the number of independent breweries such as Fullers making extensive use of top pressure dispense. I can only recall one occasion when I drank what I believed at the time to be top pressure beer, although there may have been more. I suspect, once “real ale” came to be seen as a selling point, the breweries thought “why should we be applying gas to what is basically proper cask beer?” Arguably CAMRA’s greatest achievement in its early years was not to turn the keg tide, but to virtually eliminate top pressure. As far as I’m aware, it’s a method of beer dispense that has completely died the death for twenty or more years now. Indeed, is there any tank beer still being produced now?

A fascinating book that paints a picture of an era very different from today – the geographical limitations on the availability of most beers, and the dominance of the tied house system being two of the major points that stand out. Was it better or worse than today – well, that’s a subjective judgment, but the pub trade as a whole was certainly much healthier and there was a refreshing absence of anti-drink paranoia. Incidentally, you may be interested in this post from last year about beer drinking in different eras.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Breaking the law?

Here are the results of the poll as to whether people had knowingly broken the drink-driving limit. This was purely done out of interest rather than to make any specific point. 39 respondents, 49% of the total, and 61% of drivers, said they had done it “once” or a “few times”, which I suspect in general were well in the past and not something about which they felt any sense of pride.

As the question was whether you “knew”, not whether you thought you might have taken a risk, I wouldn’t suggest anyone answering “Never” was a hypocrite, although if the question had been whether people had ever driven with a quantity of alcohol in their bloodstream above zero, for anyone who was at all a frequent driver and a frequent drinker such an answer certainly would have been.

Over the years I have encountered one or two people who claimed to “never drink and drive” and indeed on occasions were critical of others who did so within the legal limit, and yet because of the general level of their evening consumption must often have been over the limit the following morning. The slow rate at which alcohol is metabolised by the body is still not appreciated as widely as it should be. Take a look at and work it out for yourself.

The proportion of non-drivers at 19% is very close to the proportion in the male adult population as a whole. I assume that, as past surveys have shown, the vast majority of readers of this blog are male. According to the DfT transport statistics, it is 20% of all males and 28% of all drivers. Interestingly, though, only 10% of males in the 40-69 age group do not have a licence, and so I would say amongst the blog’s core audience non-drivers are over-represented. Possibly some peopke make a choice early in life to be “drinkers” and not “drivers”, thus avoiding all the judgments and compromises that combining both in your life involves.

Thursday 9 August 2012

I wish to register a complaint

A group of friends were recently touring the Scottish Highlands, and one night stayed in a bunkhouse close to a hotel in a remote location on the North-West coast. They went in and were pleased to see a handpump on the bar, and so ordered some pints which they took outside to drink. However, apparently the beer was so vile that they just left it on the table and walked out.

Now, I wasn’t there, and so don’t know the precise details, and for the same reason I won’t name the establishment concerned. However, given that they are not exactly a bunch of shrinking violets, I was very surprised that they hadn’t walked back in and asked for it either to be changed or a refund given. I know sometimes you feel that you just can’t be arsed, particularly if the beer’s only borderline returnable and it’s somewhere you won’t be going again. I’ve occasionally left near-full pints and walked away that in a familiar pub I would undoubtedly have returned with a comment like “sorry, but this really isn’t on very good form today”.

But, to my mind, if beer is obviously sour or murky, then really it’s almost your duty to take it back and politely request that something should be done about it. British people are still too often unwilling to “make a fuss” or “cause a scene”, and this reluctance to point out poor beer ultimately does the reputation of real ale no good. On several occasions I’ve seen people – even CAMRA members – struggling through seriously below-par pints that really should be sent straight back.

Incidentally, the other day I was given a distinctly hazy pint in a Wetherspoons that I know many would have grudgingly put up with, but I took it back and had it changed without demur.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Priced out

A report released by CAMRA to coincide with the Great British Beer Festival reveals that “The percentage of young pub goers (18-24 year olds) visiting the pub regularly – once a week or more – has plummeted from 38% to 16% since 2005.”

However, it’s hard to see how raising the cost of off-trade alcohol through minimum pricing is going to do anything to make pubgoing more affordable. It is also the case that substantial sections of the pub trade, especially the pub company sector, have pushed through above-inflation price rises year-on-year without any thought as to whether their customers can actually afford it, thus leading to a slow but steady erosion of trade. It can’t be coincidence that in many town centres Wetherspoons, for all their lack of atmosphere, are the only pub that is busy, because they offer conspicuously good value for money. A pint of real ale in my local Spoons is no more expensive than the undiscounted price of a premium bottled ale in Tesco.

And there couldn’t have been anything else that has happened to pubs since 2005 that has deterred many customers from going, could there? I’m scratching my head here...

Don’t drink and walk

I know someone who works in the highways department of a metropolitan council, and he says one of their major road safety issues is accidents involving drunken pedestrians in town centres, mainly at weekends. So, while this initiative in Blackpool to highlight the risks of being out on the streets when drunk may seem like just another bout of nannying, it is addressing a genuine problem. Alcohol affects your judgment and spatial awareness just as much on foot as in a car, and if people are larking or staggering about in close proximity to motor vehicles they can come to serious harm at surprisingly low speeds. Over 50% of all adult pedestrian fatalities on the roads involve people who are over the legal drink-driving limit.

However, it’s important to retain a sense of perspective, and I can’t see how anything is needed beyond increasing awareness and maybe some judicious redesign of the road system to minimise conflicts between vehicles and revellers. We don’t want to get to the situation in Australia – now Official World Nannying Capital – where alcohol limits for pedestrians are being seriously proposed.

Clearly it makes sense before you go out to have a plan for how you intend to end the evening, and not to let yourself get in such a state that you really have no idea how you are going to get home. It would not surprise me if many of the deaths of drunken pedestrians involved those who had attempted long walks home that they probably wouldn’t contemplate if they were sober. Another risk not to be laughed off is that they may fall victim to hypothermia.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Southern discomfort

Here is a picture taken recently of the now-closed Southern Hotel in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. It’s a monumental 1930s pub in the neo-Classical style. It was originally built by Swales Brewery, notorious for “Swales’s swill”, who were taken over around 1971 by Boddingtons. Yet another example of big, purpose-built inter-wars pubs going to the wall. There’s no shortage of nearby housing, so a lack of potential customers within walking distance can’t be blamed. It appears in its last years to have adopted an Irish theme, with signs advertising “Mammy’s Kitchen”.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Speaking up for drinkers

I would urge everyone to read the written evidence submitted by Chris Snowdon, Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs and author of the Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, to the House of Commons Health Select Committee on the issue of alcohol policy:

As regards raising the drinking age, lowering the strength of alcoholic drinks, banning advertising and mandating plain packaging, these are all policies entirely at odds with the principles of a free society. Drinking alcohol is an adult pastime and those who are 18 and over should not be prohibited from engaging in it and have a right to know which products are available. Plain packaging, like minimum pricing, would be a serious infringement of commercial freedom which would likely violate a number of free trade agreements to which the UK is a signatory. We find it troubling and scarcely believable that the government is contemplating creating a country in which bureaucrats not only set the price of products but also design their packaging.
Wouldn’t it be good if there was a national organisation representing the interests of responsible drinkers of all kinds – beer, cider, wine and spirits, on-trade and off-trade – that was prepared to speak out in such a forthright and cogent manner? In a sense it is disappointing and worrying that the official orthodoxy on the evils of drink is only being countered by individual principled lobbyists, no matter how articulate they may be.

More power to Chris’s elbow, though!

The real reason why

I passed my driving test in November 1976 and gained my legal drinking spurs the following year. At that time, ten years after the breathalyser law had been introduced, it was still regarded as entirely normal and responsible behaviour to drive to the pub and drink within the legal limit. For very many people, that was the default mode of pubgoing. They had their own view of what the limit meant for them, and kept within it. Sometimes they might push it with the odd extra half or pint but, given that there is often a considerable grey area between the accepted wisdom and what actually breaches the law, they were usually OK.

Very occasionally, someone might get done for drink-driving and banned but, provided they weren’t grossly over, the reaction in their peer group would be sympathy rather than condemnation. Indeed, the feedback from people’s breathalyser results and the amount they had drunk would help form a view as to what level of consumption would be acceptable. Over the years, the few people I have known who have been convicted of drink-driving have all, in their various ways, been asking for it, not marginal cases.

In the late 70s and early 80s, this pattern of pubgoing sustained very many pubs. Plenty of today’s food houses didn’t even serve meals in the evenings. 1979, it must be remembered, was the all-time peak of beer sales in pubs. But it must be made absolutely clear: this was (and remains) legal. Virtually no pub was kept in business by lawbreakers.

For me, and (from comments and e-mails) many other people, getting in the car and going out to explore country pubs, while taking it in turns to do the driving and keep within the limit, was a regular weekend leisure activity. But people don’t seem to do that any more, much to the cost of pubs.

I remember in 1985 seeing posters saying “Stay Low”, but before too long the official message had become “Have None for the Road” – something that had no basis in either the law or statistical risk profiles. However, that is a message that has been increasingly taken up by those attaining the legal driving age beyond that date, and now very many of the younger generation will not even have a half of lager if they are driving. The general message in the media is that, if you are driving, you should not drink anything at all.

This must be recognised as a major factor – probably THE major factor – in the decline of the pub trade outside major urban centres over the past couple of decades, well ahead of the smoking ban, important though that is. People are unwilling to drive to the pub and drink within the legal limit, even though it remains a lawful activity. They don’t in general find another way to go to the pub, they simply don’t go at all. This is certainly the key reason for the decline of the upmarket pub, as far as drinking is concerned. Arguably most of the claimed benefits of the oft-advocated 50mg drink-driving limit have already been realised. If you want to know Whatever Happened to Pubs? this is it.

Sometimes I go in pubs where drink-driving within the law is still commonplace, indeed where that is what largely keeps the pub going. But it is predominantly done by customers over the age of 50, and as they age the business of the pub will diminish and it will eventually close or go over entirely to food.

For what it’s worth, since 1976 I have driven over 350,000 miles, with only a single speeding conviction in 1981. I have been breathalysed precisely once, after consuming an amount of alcohol that I believed would leave me comfortably within the legal limit, something the test confirmed.