New struggle over future of Roscoe Head
Added: Monday, April 27th 2020
The Roscoe Head is an iconic institution in Liverpool, named after William Roscoe, a leading campaigner against the slave trade. It’s renowned as one of the Famous Five – pubs that have been in every edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide since 1974. You could be forgiven for imagining that the owners would be only too pleased to allow their tenant to continue and expand the good work.
Instead the landlady of this popular Liverpool pub is locked in a bitter dispute with her landlord over rent and the beers she can sell.
Carol Ross (pictured) and her family have run the Roscoe Head on Roscoe Street for more than 30 years. In common with other successful tenants, Carol had long-running battles with its owner, Punch Taverns.
In 2015 ownership passed to New River Retail, and Hawthorn Leisure, New River’s pub-owning subsidiary.
Carol and her supporters are convinced Hawthorn Leisure wants to remove her from the pub as a result of disputes over rent and her request to be given MRO status. MRO stands for Market Rent Only and means that if licensees pay an agreed higher rent they can buy beers free of the tie.
Without MRO, licensees are restricted to the beers supplied by the owning pub company or brewery.
Carol says: “Last October Hawthorn told me they planned to more than double my rent and they refused to give me MRO.”
She says that if she is forced to leave “they would then put in a manager or a more compliant tenant but if I go a lot of people would boycott the pub and trade would fall.”
The regular beers are Tetley Bitter and Timothy Taylor Landlord, with four changing guest beers. Carol would like to expand the range, with more beers from smaller independent breweries.
As a result of the sale of the pub to New River Retail, a Save the Roscoe campaign was set up by the local branch of CAMRA to support Carol Ross and her family. A demonstration was held outside the pub and speakers included the national chairman of CAMRA, Colin Valentine.
New River Retail has rapidly become a major pub company, owning more than 700 outlets. In 2013 it bought 200 pubs from Marston’s for £90 million, followed by 158 pubs from Punch Taverns in 2015 for £53.5 million. Some outlets have been sold to the Co-op, which has turned them into convenience stores.
New River says it has not registered with the Pubs Code and is not obliged to offer MRO to tenants as it has fewer than 500 pubs. It says some of its pubs are "operator managed", where licensees are self-employed and do not pay rent. It also has pubs in Scotland where the Pubs Code does not operate. Liverpool councillor Nick Small is taking the matter up with the Pubs Ajudicator.
Carol Ross has had a turbulent time with her landlords. She has suffered the indignity of the pubco sending in a company called Brulines that ran tests on her cellar and beer lines to the bar to see if she had served beers outside the agreed tied list.
The Roscoe Head is protected by an ACV or Asset of Community Value. This is a listing by the local authority that prevents a pub being sold and gives the possibility of a comunity buy-out being organised.
Carol is worried that the current ACV expires in the autumn and may not be renewed but the Liverpool branch of CAMRA is seeking an extension with the council (see below).
A spokesman for Hawthorn Leisure says: “The Roscoe Head has a well-deserved reputation in Liverpool as a thriving community pub. Since we acquired the pub from Punch Taverns in 2015 we have invested in the pub and maintained a good partner relationship with our tenant, Carol Ross, whose tenancy agreement comes to an end in February 2021.
“We are currently engaged with Carol about the future of the pub and whilst these conversations remain confidential, we’d like to reassure customers that whatever happens we are committed to keeping the Roscoe Head open and maintaining its status as a popular community pub which serves good beer.”
Carol Ross disputes the claim. “New River have invested nothing in the pub – they’ve spent zero since 2015. They’ve made £70,000 to £80,000 a year from the pub and they would lose half of that if I was given MRO.
“I’m on the minimum wage. If I got MRO I could pay myself a normal salary.”
She adds that if she doesn’t get a new lease next year and has to leave the pub she will also lose her flat above it. Her rent is currently “deferred” not cancelled.
Carol is determined to fight on to save her pub and her family’s legacy. If necessary she will take legal action against her landlord.
“I’m not walking away,” she says. “My pension is in the pub.”