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Blinkered thinking is wrecking pubs

Added: Friday, January 8th 2021

King William IV

In spite of being lobbied by MPs and thousands signing a CAMRA petition, the government on 8 January said it would not change the rules affecting pubs while supermarkets would remain free to sell alcohol.

A further nail has been hammered into the coffin of the battered pub by the government decision to ban take home service during the third lockdown. Last year many pubs and small breweries were kept afloat by their ability to offer fresh draught beer to drinkers but that window of opportunity has been slammed shut.

But the new rules don’t stop supermarkets and other retail outlets from selling alcohol by the slab. The tortured thinking behind this curious ruling is highlighted in St Albans in Hertfordshire. The King William IV pub stands at a busy road junction outside the city centre and is the only pub for miles around.

It’s now dark, shuttered and beyond the pale. Over the road, a Shell petrol station includes a Londis convenience store. I can go to the shop without buying petrol and can pick up beer and wine for takeaway, with opening hours that go beyond the permitted hours for a pub.

Across the road is a Majestic Wine Warehouse, which at the moment has a 50 per cent sale. A few yards away a Tesco Metro has several isles offering beer, wine and spirits. It opens from 6am until 11pm – hours that put the average Wetherspoon’s in the shade.

Cheek-by-jowl, three stores serve unlimited amounts of alcohol from dawn until dusk. None offers the creature comforts of the King Will or any other pub: a warm welcome, hot food as well as drink and the chance to unwind, read a book or a newspaper or watch TV. At present, it can’t even allow customers the opportunity to buy take home draught beer.

I have seen photos where some pubs sold alcohol in open containers, leading to an abuse of the rules, with drinkers congregating outside.  This by common consent only involved a small minority. When I bought take home beer from local pubs, I had to stand in orderly queues, keeping well apart from one another. Abuses could and should have been dealt with against individual establishments as in all other walks of life, rather than risking the livelihoods of the fully compliant majority.

Shell garage

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality says: “Take home sales were a valuable lifeline for some venues. That lifeline is now being strangled, making survival seem even harder for lots of businesses. If the government’s intention is to discourage people congregating outdoors, there doesn’t seem much logic to it.

“People will go to supermarkets and off licences and buy cans and bottles while stock in closed pubs goes to waste and compounds pub losses. It’s another example of hospitality being scapegoated yet again.”

The reopening of schools and universities led to a resurgence of the virus, not the reopening of pubs, even with the Eat Out to Help Out boosting of customer numbers in August.

The new restrictions will mean that many pubs will close not just for the lockdown but for good. Figures compiled by the British Beer & Pub Association show that in 2020 2,500 pubs closed, twice as many as in 2019.

There’s been a decrease in the total number of pubs of 7,600 in the past 10 years. Since 2000, 13,600 pubs have closed. Pubs have suffered as a result of growing competition from fast-food outlets and coffee bars but one of the major causes of the decline is the price of beer: supermarkets and other retailers can buy beer at deep discounts from big global brewers while publicans have to pay top prices for their beer.

It’s not surprising that many people – especially those on lower incomes -- prefer to buy cheap beer from supermarkets. Publicans have both hands tied behind their back: even prior to Covid, the beer they buy is expensive and they are saddled with high rents and crippling levels of business rates.

Many have called it a day and more will follow. At the very least, the government should as a matter of urgency lift the ban on take home beer and throw the pub a lifeline.