Friday 27 April 2018

Stand and deliver

I recently caught up at last with GBG ticker Simon Everitt of BRAPA fame at the Cherry Tree in Culcheth, a rather nondescript suburb of Warrington. Although it’s hardly a major metropolis, I noticed a pay and display machine in the pub’s car park. In this case it was no problem – it was only a quid, which was happily redeemed against a half of Tetley’s. But this is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common.

One of the first places I came across it was at the Bear’s Paw in Frodsham, Cheshire, which I mentioned here. In his last years, I sometimes used to take my dad out for a pint in the Golden Lion on Sunday lunchtimes. He had given up driving himself, and wasn’t really able to walk to the bus stop, so it was one of the few opportunities he had to get out of the house. The Golden Lion doesn’t have its own car park, but the Bear’s Paw just across the road does. Situated in the centre of a busy market town where parking is at a premium, inevitably non-customers were taking advantage, so you can’t really blame them for bringing it in. As the price differential between the Sam Smith’s in the Golden Lion, and whatever was on offer in Bear’s Paw, was easily a pound a pint, we were still quids in.

However, before pubs take the plunge, they need to think through the implications properly. You may be annoyed by non-customers using your car park, but unless they’re genuinely preventing customers from finding a space it’s not actually achieving anything for your business. Even though it may seem only a minor inconvenience, it’s still a little niggle to weigh in the balance when deciding where to visit. People’s pubgoing choices are determined by a whole raft of factors, many of which may individually appear trivial. Plus, in an age where cashless payment is increasingly becoming the norm, not offering this option erects another barrier.

In most examples I’ve seen, the charge is fully refundable at the bar, but in some cases a minimum spend is set. For example, at the Moor Top in Heaton Moor near me, the car park charge is £2, but you have to spend at least £5 to get a refund. Obviously they’re not interested in anyone just dropping in for a swift pint.

If people are really determined to take advantage, the enforceability of private parking “fines” is distinctly questionable – the system functions more as a psychological deterrent. You can of course bar them from the pub, but that’s no use if they never come in in the first place. There is also the factor that many responsible people may be reluctant to use the car park of a business where they’re not a customer, but have no such compunctions if a charge is introduced, as shown by the well-known experiment of introducing fines for late collection at a day nursery.

It may well be, of course, that a pub has an under-used car park that it wants to turn into a revenue stream, and if that’s the objective it’s entirely reasonable. But, whatever the circumstances, it’s important that pubs consider exactly what they’re setting out to achieve before implementing pay and display parking. And, if you want to ensure 100% compliance, the only way to do it is through putting up an exit barrier.

Monday 23 April 2018

Two cheers for Revitalisation

As I’m sure all my readers are aware, last Saturday saw the announcement of the results of the voting on the great issue of our times – CAMRA Revitalisation. While I hadn’t got to the stage of writing anything in advance, obviously I had given some thought as to what I would say in the event of the vote going one way or the other. However, in typically British style, what happened was not a decisive decision but a somewhat equivocal outcome. In a sense, I was being prescient back in September when I wrote “No doubt in the end some kind of uneasy compromise will be arranged.”

As the results show, all but one of the Special Resolutions were passed with the required 75% majority. The one exception was SR6 ‘To approve the insertion of the following Article 2(e) in CAMRAʼs Articles of Association: “2(e) to act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub- goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers;”’ which only secured 72.6% approval. The resolution was widely seen as putting into practice the aspiration expressed in the Revitalisation report to extend some measure of support to “quality” non-real beers and ciders.

In fact, the democratic credentials of the whole exercise were very suspect, as no opportunity was given to circulate to the membership any case against the Special Resolutions. Given this, it’s impressive that there was sufficient grass-roots discontent to reject even one of them. The whole thing was reminiscent of a Soviet Bloc election and leaves a distinctly sour taste in the mouth.

Contrast this with the National Executive elections, where Lynn Atack, the only candidate to set out an unequivocal stall against the entire thrust of the Revitalisation agenda, topped the poll with 8,491 votes. The total number of voters in this election hasn’t been stated, but it’s clear that Lynn received a substantially higher percentage of votes than those which opposed SR6. Maybe it is better to treat the electorate as adults and give them a for-or-against case rather than just implying they’re rubber-stamping something.

Taking the results as a whole, nine out of ten Revitalisation resolutions were passed, as were ordinary Conference motions to adopt an officially neutral stance on the cask breather, and to allow the selling of non-real British beers at beer festivals. I can’t really see the point of the last one, as it comes across as rather like allowing cats at a dog show. So the results have to be seen as a mixed bag rather than a decisive victory for either “side”. But this hasn’t stopped a hysterical toys-out-of-pram reaction in some quarters:

As I said in the post I referenced above, there remains an underlying tension in CAMRA between those who see it as essentially being about the preservation of a distinctive British tradition, and those who want it to wholeheartedly embrace the world of modern beer innovation. This decision has papered over the cracks and kicked the can down the road for another year, but the fundamental dichotomy has not gone away. Although there’s no doubt which camp I align with, it’s not a question of right and wrong, but a different way of looking at things, and the two outlooks remain uneasy bedfellows within the same organisation.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

The votes are in

Today is the closing date for postal and online voting on the Special Resolutions about CAMRA’s Revitalisation project, so I’ve closed my own poll on the subject. The results are shown above.

Obviously the voters are drawn from my blog and twitter followers, and so won’t be representative of the wider CAMRA electorate, but if replicated that would see the proposals not only fail to reach the required 75% threshold, but be defeated outright. As usually happens in these polls, the relative proportions have remained fairly steady throughout the voting period, although there has been a small swing towards the “Pro” camp in the past couple of days.

I’ve also created a Twitter poll on what result people *expect* to see, as opposed to what they *want* to see. On current figures, the most popular option is “Fall with 50-74% vote.”

The actual results at the CAMRA AGM in Coventry will be made public at some time during this coming Saturday.

Monday 9 April 2018

Feeling revitalised?

I’ve created a poll in the sidebar about CAMRA Revitalisation, which I have written about extensively over the past few months. However, knowing that people reading my blog on a mobile won’t see it, I thought it merited a post in its own right.

Edit: I have now closed the poll and removed the link. I won’t remove the post entirely as there are some interesting comments.

Friday 6 April 2018

Bring out your bottles

The government have announced that they intend to introduce a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, which they will consider extending to glass bottles and metal cans. The intention is to increase the rate of recycling, curb litter and reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans. Clearly this is a laudable aim, provided that the vessels are actually recycled rather than just being shipped off in containers to be dumped in the Congo. However, as with any such innovation, there are various aspects that need to be carefully thought through.

One of the most obvious is how it will impact on establishments that sell bottles or cans for consumption on the premises. As the ALMR have rightly pointed out, ideally they should be exempted from the deposit scheme, as anything else could lead to horrendous administrative complexity. But what then happens if customers take bottles out of the pub and try to claim refunds back?

Looking at the wider picture, we already have a well-established system of kerbside collection of bottles and cans, which may cause a certain amount of grumbling, but generally works well and achieves a high level of recycling. People have become used to this, so it would seem a bit destructive and wasteful to ditch it in favour of a whole new parallel infrastructure. Surely there must be some way in which reclaiming deposits could be integrated with the existing kerbside collections. The sheer amount of effort and investment needed to duplicate this should not be underestimated.

It’s all very well saying “take your bottles back to where you bought them”, but people accumulate bottles and cans from a variety of sources and would quite reasonably expect to return them for deposit reclaim to a single point. And, if they’re among the growing number who order their groceries online and have them delivered to their house, it would require them to make an additional journey purely to get their deposits back, which isn’t exactly very environmentally friendly.

In some countries, you get a voucher to spend at the shop hosting the recycling point, but it doesn’t seem fair to force you to spend it somewhere you might not choose to shop. A correspondent from Germany reports how the atmosphere around the recycling stations can become pretty unpleasant, especially in the summer, and resentment is inevitably provoked if apparently valid containers are rejected.

It’s not hard to imagine that, if the new system doesn’t work smoothly, it could even end up in a reduction in recycling rates if people perceive it as being too much like hard work. Of course in principle it’s worth doing, but great care will be needed to ensure that the scheme doesn’t bring with it a whole raft of undesirable and unintended consequences, which is so often the case with government initiatives.

Sunday 1 April 2018

Restricted relief

In 2002, Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced a system of Small Brewers’ Relief providing a lower level of duty for the smallest breweries. Basically, only half the standard level of duty is payable on annual production up to 5,000 hectolitres (3,050 barrels). Above this figure, the remission of duty is steadily withdrawn on a sliding scale, until it completely disappears once production exceeds 30,000 hectolitres (18,300 barrels).

The intention was to stimulate the small brewery sector by helping them overcome the economies of scale enjoyed by larger brewers, and thus establish more of a level playing field. On one level, it has undoubtedly succeeded, with the number of breweries in the UK rising to over 1,800, a higher figure than at any time since the 19th century. However, a number of criticisms have been levelled at the scheme.

It needs to be understood that it is very tightly drawn compared with what is permitted. EU rules allow the full duty rebate to be given to breweries producing up to 200,000 hectolitres (122,000 barrels), whereas in the UK it is only available in full up to a miserly 2.5% of that figure, and disappears entirely above 15%. Of course once we have left the EU, this is irrelevant, but we are not even doing anything like what we can already.

The current scheme excludes all but the smallest of the established family brewers, who feel that they end up being squeezed between microbreweries that are able to undercut them, and the international mega-brewers who benefit from economies of scale in distribution and marketing. The thresholds also act as a kind of glass ceiling that provides a disincentive to expansion. Some established brewers such as Hydes have scaled back their own production to take them below the 5,000 hectolitres figure, while several ambitious new breweries have complained that the rapid withdrawal of relief makes increasing production above 5,000 hl a very steep cliff to climb.

While the intention was to put smaller breweries on a firmer financial footing, much of the duty saving seems to end up in giving lower prices to pub operators. Thus SBR has ended up contributing to the widespread perception that cask beer is undervalued, and that there is oversupply and cut-throat price competition in the market. And, given that pub operators don’t tend to reflect lower prices paid in the price charged across the bar to customers, much of the benefit of SBR ends up flowing not to small brewers, but to pubcos.

Plus there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to competition. Does it really make the drinker’s lot any better if there are 1,800 breweries rather than 900, especially if many of them are tiny and undercapitalised, with a minuscule share of the market? Might not customers be better served if there was a smaller number of stronger, more ambitious companies eager to fight to increase their market share?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Small Brewers’ Relief falls into the same category as the Beer Orders, as something that was well-intentioned, but has ended up with a whole raft of unintended consequences and has failed to achieve the desired improvements in the overall marketplace. A group has been set up called the Small Breweries Reform Coalition to lobby for changes to the system, including both established family brewers and expansion-minded newer ones.

There are several options for reforming the regime. Simplest and cheapest would be to extend the tapered withdrawal of relief to a significantly higher figure, so the effect is more gradual and it becomes less of a disincentive to expansion. Or every brewery producing up to 200,000 hl could be allowed its first 5,000 hl of production at half duty. Or we could even follow the example of Germany and allow all breweries producing up to 200,000 hl the full benefit of the 50% relief, although obviously as UK duty is much higher, the cost to the Treasury would be commensurately greater.

Of course any suggestion of extending duty relief can be countered by the “schools and hospitals” argument, but CAMRA is happy to campaign for a general reduction in beer duty without specifying exactly where the funds are going to come from, and changes to Small Brewers’ Relief are at most only going to affect 10% o the overall beer market. A targeted measure could be a much better use of any money available for duty reduction, and be more in line with CAMRA’s objectives of increasing choice and diversity.

I wouldn’t want to propose depriving any small brewers of the relief they currently enjoy, but with the benefit of hindsight it might well have been better to design the system with a lower rate of relief, but a much gentler or even non-existent taper. And, if you’re only in business to take advantage of a tax relief, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

I also must say I have considerable sympathy with the views expressed by Brian Sheridan in this letter which appeared in the April issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing.