Penny-off-a-pint Chancellor smacks himself in gob

25. March 2013 12:21

Gobsmacked.

That was the almost universal pub trade reaction to the Chancellor’s decision to axe the beer duty escalator last Wednesday; like being smacked in the gob. But in a nice way.

Indeed, George Osborne sounded surprised himself as he announced he was going even further by taking a penny off a pint to become the first Chancellor to reduce beer duty since Derick Heathcote-Amory in 1959.

It could well be that while thrashing about for a piece of good news with which to placate an impoverished electorate George Osborne smacked himself in the gob with this one - a deliciously distracting image, but we’d best move on.

Hopefully, not too many pub-goers will be demanding cheap beer at their local tonight. Most publicans will make the calculation that they have already absorbed much of the rising costs which have been faced in recent years, not only from punishing taxes but from brewers’ price increases and various overheads. And the duty escalator is still rising for wines and spirits, of course.

So they are not going to pass on the chance to claw a little back. In any case, customers are hardly going to feel the benefit of a penny off, while across the pub industry those pennies add up to about £30million. A couple of operators have, however, cleverly capitalised on the publicity. JD Wetherspoon is knocking 5p off two of its cheaper beers to take them below £2 a pint – something that drinkers will notice and appreciate. And Chris Gerard of Innventure has emailed a 1p-off voucher to regular customers of his six pubs – a gimmick, but one that might drive a bit of extra trade.

The important thing is, though, that the Treasury has broken with the principle of the escalator. We ought now to at least get Chancellors who think about what they are doing and are open to argument before whacking the duty up; and hopefully take down the escalator for wines and spirits, too.

It was unfortunate that the Wine & Spirits Trade Association was unable to spot this possibility. Instead of welcoming the move and urging the Chancellor to take the next logical step, in a fit of jealousy it chose to have a go at beer, claiming that pubs wouldn’t benefit. One lesson from the campaign against the duty escalator, that speaking with one voice might just make a difference, clearly still has to be learned by some.

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Minimum pricing and the Tory dilemma

18. March 2013 09:19

For a minute there, I thought minimum pricing might bring down the government as David Cameron made an ungainly retreat from his former determination to introduce the measure; then some other stuff happened and the price of booze was dispatched to its rightful place as a triviality in the wider scheme of things.

But it’s worth pondering why an alcohol policy like this, little more than a tinkering when you compare it to what a government might do, has caused such controversy and confusion, especially among Conservatives. We need to go back to first principles, and a little book on licensing written in 1903 by the unfashionable Fabians Beatrice and Sidney Webb. They uncovered a fundamental contradiction it the state’s attitude to the drink question. A government likes to encourage industry, but what if that industry produces something that’s a potential threat to the economy as a whole?

The solution to this dilemma, the Webbs argued, is licensing itself, a tightly defined regulation of the drinks industry that handily produces its own revenue, through duty, taxation and various fees.

However, this negotiation does not settle the underlying contradiction. Alcohol policy is, as you will have noticed, in a continuous state of flux (in the current terminology, ‘rebalancing’) as the state comes under pressure from competing interests: the health lobby, law and order and the different sectors of the industry.

Today’s Conservative Party is, meanwhile, torn by its own contradictory forces along similar fault lines. On the one hand there is the libertarian ideology based on a faith in free market economics, on the other the desire for strong law and order to sustain the optimum conditions for that same economy.

Significantly, the Government Alcohol Strategy of last March came out of the Home Office, not the Department of Health, and begins with the anti-disorder case for minimum pricing and other measures. Health is tacked onto the end, almost as an after-thought. It now seems that in the endless tug of war between the free market and law and order the free marketers are, for the moment, holding sway, David Cameron the knotted kerchief bouncing about on the middle of the rope.

We await the announcement of the latest temporary resolution in Wednesday’s Budget. Rest assured, though, that it won’t bring an end to the matter.

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Drinking by numbers

11. March 2013 11:05

The health lobby is not having a good binge-drinking epidemic. More figures came out last week to suggest that we are consuming less alcohol. But that's not all. Those believed to be the most vulnerable groups - heavy drinkers and young people - are driving the trend.

Between 2005 and 2011 the number of men who had consumed more than twice the recommended units (the definition of a binge) on their biggest drinking day of the previous week fell from 23% of the survey to 18%.
And as for our wild, irresponsible youth, the number of bingers among them plummeted from 32% to 22%.

Of course, these numbers are based on notoriously unreliable self-reporting (absurdly exaggerated in recent 'secret drinker' media headlines), but the trend is undeniable. But what's causing it? No doubt the recession has had an impact, however consumption has been declining since 2004, which is well before disposable income started to be hit by unemployment and falling wages. Plus, the sales of cheap supermarket booze are falling now.

How about all that education? Have people finally got the message about those sensible drinking guidelines? It seems unlikely given the understandably poor level of understanding of alcohol units. There are some things, shifts that happen in the mass of a population, that are very hard to pin down to one or two determining factors.

When we look back on this period from a future standpoint it will be seen, most probably, as a time of readjustment from a peak around the turn of the century. These ups and downs are a part of history going back centuries, and only ever partially explained by changes in government alcohol policy - although taxation has certainly been a factor, as it may be today.

We can expect the debates around alcohol policy to rage on though, because there is more at stake ideologically than a simple regulation of consumption or a minimisation of harm. If that wasn't the case, we would be less bothered about the overall stats and more bothered about the individuals who are damaged by their drinking but never show up in these kind of numbers.

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In defence of ‘Spoons

4. March 2013 11:13

Will Self, the posh novelist and professionally bewildered Shooting Stars contestant, tackles the JD Wetherspoon pub chain in his latest Real Meals column for the New Statesman magazine*. A crunching, over-the-top, studs-showing, unfair tackle the article is; it’s worthy of a yellow card, if not a sending off.

My theory is that Self was late; late with his copy as he arrived at Victoria Station one day. Getting slightly desperate and happy to settle for an easy target (I know the feeling) he glanced around the concourse: Burger King, Upper Crust, Delice de France and then up at the Wetherspoon’s on the balcony. Perfect.

Victoria is never going to be the best example of a Wetherspoons pub. Self does not mention it, but he would have found it busy, as it invariably is, with people waiting for delayed trains, people meeting up, and people nipping in for a swift half of something interesting.

It is a business at continuous full-stretch with little time for hospitality and its frills, a purely functional pub that does the job. It’s not what you would call a ‘destination venue’. All Wetherspoons are a little like that, actually. It is their unfussy functionality, as well as their good value, that makes the pub chain so popular. Though not with Self who regards them as: “… shit, brown dollops of establishments smeared incontinently across our cities. Actually, ‘shit’ is a little strong for Wetherspoon – a bit too gamey; they’re more ‘shit-lite’.”

This is good writing. It’s funny, it’s clever, and I like it. But in delivering entertaining copy Self is not just laying into Wetherspoon, he is attacking the hundreds of thousands of people who use it, people who obviously haven’t got Self’s high standards.

One of them is me. True, if there is a nicer, cosier pub nearby that serves a decent pint I wouldn’t give the ‘Spoons a second glance. But quite often when I’m in an unfamiliar town I’m grateful to spot the ‘W’ sign that tells me there’s a place I can go that will give me cask beer in good condition, free Wi-Fi and something okay to eat if I’m hungry and can’t find a curry house.

Self should recognise this practical appeal that has made JD Wetherspoon and its creator, Tim Martin, so successful. He should also recognise that ‘Spoons is giving all those people he must have noticed at Victoria something they need; but the article is all about his personal distaste for a concept he blames on “a man named Tim”.

The problem with this review is that it’s written by a man named Self.

*Read it if you must, here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/food-and-drink/2013/02/pub-chain-named-after-object-resentment-codtraditional-its-fish-and-c

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Croydon’s super-CIP: the latest threat to pubs?

25. February 2013 11:27

When I worked in Croydon around the turn of the century, it was reckoned to be a good idea not to hang around too long on a Friday evening as the town’s wild weekend got under way.
On the walk to the station police were already standing in pairs on street corners by 6pm, ready for it to kick off.

Those were the days of the scramble for the high street, when pub and bar operators were under commercial pressure to stake a claim on a share of the late-night market. You could stand on one corner and count eleven giant venues by only moving your head (we had to make our own amusements back then). This was before everyone realised things were getting out of hand and got together to better manage the thousands of young people flooding into the centre from the lacklustre suburbs to have some fun.

Now stronger partnerships between local authorities, police, door supervisors and the operators themselves, plus the fact that not all those pubs and bars could possibly survive, have reduced disorder on many notorious drinking circuits; Croydon included. Yet the council is planning the country’s largest Cumulative Impact Policy (CIP), reaching far beyond the town centre and covering three-quarters of the borough. If it goes through, it will make it much easier to turn down new licences and refuse licence variations for longer hours. Worryingly, Croydon says it is basing the need for the super-CIP not only on disorder but on public health.

This is in line with the Government Alcohol Strategy which includes the promotion of public health as a fifth licensing objective within CIPs – and is timed to coincide with local authorities taking responsibility for public health in April. The problem is that, unlike disorder, health cannot be easily attached to a local geography. Health is portable. If you are serious about licensing in the interests of public health there can be no boundaries.

Croydon is a straw in the wind, warning of a further tightening of a licensing regime that has already begun to roll back the liberalising gains of the 2003 Act by introducing Early Morning Restriction Orders and the Late Night Levy. Croydon shows this isn’t just a concern for town and city centre venues; it’s a threat to the whole pub trade.

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Pubs and the horsemeat scandal

18. February 2013 11:34

The horsemeat scandal has spread to pubs. At the end of last week Whitbread, which operates pub-restaurant brands like Brewers Fayre and Beefeater, declared that its lasagne contains traces of horse (and I don’t mean traces as in reins. They would be pure beef, ironically).

Most worrying for the pub trade, those lasagnes came from Brakes, one of the industry’s biggest suppliers. Brakes, in turn, passed the buck (the etymological origin lies in the horn of the male deer, in case you’re wondering) to one of its own suppliers, Pinnacle Foods.
I see that Pinnacle has a Red Tractor quality assurance mark on its UK website; so that’s a lot of use, then.

Some pubs, of course, are feeling quite chuffed at the scandal. Increasing numbers have been positioning their food offer at the quality end, providing assurances of provenance through the local butcher right through to the farm, all noted on the menu. We are not too far off that scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which diners are introduced in person to the beast they’ll be eating.

So pubs have led the way in local sourcing and could well benefit from a consumer anxiety about where the meat they are eating comes from.

But what about the wet-led community pubs with food offers at the value end of the market? Not having DNA testing equipment on the premises, they rely on suppliers like Brakes to assure quality. But, as we have seen, supply lines have become so stretched that such assurances are hard to guarantee, even for the most reputable of companies.

It seems strange that to drive down costs the food industry has moved further and further away from its food sources, each additional link in the supply chain taking a cut of the profits. The pressure on price is such that it’s not surprising that someone cheats. Some have argued that we’ve just got to get used to paying more for food - but for many that’s not an easy option. Those people eating at their local, for instance.

Food plays a complex role in community pubs. It is not simply there to provide an extra profit stream; it also gives customers a reason to use the pub a little more and to stay a little longer. It’s part of the service. Community pub licensees cannot ask the sort of prices that a food-led house in the wealthier rural areas can command for its locally-sourced menu.

I think the solution might lie in simpler dishes. Rather than buying in burgers, sites could do a deal with a trusted local butcher for a good sausage to go in a roll, or serve a hunk of bread and cheese with a home-made soup.

Whatever people decide to do, the horse meat scandal has supplied yet another pressure to the pub trade that it could have done without.

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Hacking up minimum pricing

11. February 2013 14:21

Travelling on the London Underground last Thursday, I picked up a copy of the free Metro newspaper. The front page headline had caught my eye: "30p on cost of pint 'can cut deaths by a third'”.

That's odd, I thought, and I steeled myself to read it. It was about the latest research from Canada that is being used to support the case for minimum unit alcohol pricing. Roughly, it appears that a 10% increase in the minimum price set for drinks in British Columbia has had a sharp impact on reducing alcohol-related deaths.

There is much to debate about the relevance of this to the UK plans for minimum pricing. A key point for me is that the liquor trade in British Columbia is state-controlled. In the private sector supermarkets will deploy a range of strategies to offset any lost sales, for example by promoting higher priced products.

However, what it will certainly not do is raise the price of a pint in the pub, as the Metro story suggests. Worse still, the reporter seems to have completely misunderstood what a minimum unit price is, applying the 10% increase to the final price of the drink rather than to the unit price. A 10% increase to the proposed minimum in England and Wales will, for example, lift it from 45p to 50p (curiously, that is exactly what the public health lobby is demanding…).

Beer drinkers in the pub might also be bemused by the story since they have probably already seen the price of their pint go up by 30p in the past year or so thanks to VAT, the duty escalator and the rising costs of production and running a pub.

In short, the Metro splash was an exceptionally dire piece of journalism. I hear the reporter talked to James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK, who supplies a typically well-measured comment, for forty minutes and still got the article all ‘arse-over-face’.

It may not have been entirely her fault, though. Tabloid journalism is based on delivering the kind of simple shock headlines it believes its readers will grasp in an instant. The price of a pint is a staple fall-back on a slow news day and the reporter will have been under orders to get an angle that would make the front page. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as the old hacks' motto goes.

It’s a beast of a challenge for those trying to get across the more complex messages that an understanding of alcohol policy requires. It is dispiriting that even the relatively straightforward concept of minimum unit pricing can get mashed up like this.

Whichever side of the debate you're on, and especially if you're somewhere in-between, it's not doing anyone any good.

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Why good publicans fail…

4. February 2013 10:18

It was sad last week to discover that Mark Daniels is giving up his pub. Mark is the nephew of magician Paul Daniels, but it doesn’t sound like the magic rubbed off enough for Mark to be able to conjure a decent living from the business.

After eight years he’s handing in the keys on the Tharp Arms, a village pub in Cambridgeshire, partly because he thinks he needs a new challenge; however he makes it clear in his well-written blogs that growing financial pressures have made things increasingly difficult.

A lot of licensees leave because they just are not good enough. Mark Daniels did not have much time for them and he is certainly not among them. He’s always coming up with new ideas for the business, and he’s been happy to share them in the trade media.

So what went wrong? Mark is careful not to blame his landlord, Greene King, but his wet-led tied tenancy will inevitably have been operating on tighter profit margins than any comparable free house. Soaring utility prices have squeezed profits harder, and the weather has not helped. You cannot do much about the latter (apart from tackling climate change - not exactly a quick fix), but Daniels is right to call for regulation of profiteering utility companies.

That will do us all a favour.

Only the other day David Cameron promised specific measures to help pubs, but if it’s not going to be a halt to the duty escalator or reducing VAT for hospitality businesses to 5% you can’t really see how it’s going to make much difference.

There is the statutory code planned for tenants of larger pub operators, but Mark Daniels describes that as a ‘sop’. After all, it’s not going to mean much to licensees like him who have a good relationship with their landlord and still struggle. Mark is not the first and he certainly will not be the last talented licensee to chuck it in. While I do believe it’s possible for a good tenant to make some sort of a living, nobody’s going to make their fortune at it in the current conditions, and perhaps some are disappointed because they set their sights too high.

Or, like Daniels, they might have weighed the effort against the reward and found it is no longer balancing.

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Whine by the class

28. January 2013 12:50

Sometimes you have to do things you don’t really want to do. So, half-looking away, I’ve just clicked on the latest Mail Online booze scare story: “Soaring number of career women 'killed by alcohol'”.

It’s a bit like a 19th century cholera epidemic. When it is only killing poor people it does not matter too much, but now it’s ‘career women’! Where will it end?

Steeling myself to read further, it turns out that the number of women in ‘higher professional occupations’ dying an ‘alcohol related’ death rose from forty-two in a year to fifty-two. Not very nice for the ten people and their families, but I am not sure this is statistically significant.

There is actually a bigger increase among women lower down the social scale – 47% for those in ‘intermediate’ and ‘semi-routine’ occupations – and bigger numbers, into the low hundreds. That’s maybe still not as many as these scary headlines would lead you to think, but it’s worth pointing out that time after time NHS statistics have shown that people in the most deprived fifth of the UK population are six to seven times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than the better-off fifth; despite drinking slightly less as a group.

Serious research is underway into why this is so (watch this space), but you have to ask why this striking statistic doesn’t get more attention.

To prove my self-sacrifice knows no bounds, I’ve also been reading the Telegraph, and a story yesterday headed, “Ban on alcohol discounts will hit middle class”.

This time, you’ll notice, the worry is not that the better-off are drinking too much, but that they might not be able to drink enough. The Telegraph has been a major platform for the opposition to minimum unit pricing, but from an ideological free trade perspective. After all, you won’t find too many of its readers buying three-litre plastic bottles of cider in the local Tesco Express.

But now it has been discovered that another plank of government alcohol policy is hitting closer to home:  a ban on multi-buys will ruin wine clubs, it fears. Coming from Cameron’s Conservatives this is out-and-out class betrayal:

“Our typical customer is middle-aged and middle class, likes cricket and classical music and reads The Daily Telegraph,” says Glenn Caton, the boss of Direct Wines. “These are successful, responsible citizens who like to enjoy a glass of good wine… not the people who go out and get drunk and smash up town centres and cause trouble.”

He fails mention whether their typical customer is also immune to liver disease.

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E-cigarettes: harm reduction or just a cheat?

21. January 2013 10:01

When I was small I used to watch my grandparents smoking with some fascination. “I’m going to smoke when I grow up,” I assured them, somehow mistaking it for a career choice.

In fact I never started smoking. Not even a puff behind the bushes on Wanstead Flats. While waiting not to smoke, though, I had my sweet cigarettes which I used to hold between two fingers, affecting stylish poses, before eating. I graduated onto chocolate cigarettes, which came wrapped in edible paper, and chocolate cigars – but only at Christmas-time.

At some point sweet cigarettes were banned, for what now seem like obvious reasons. Although I believe you can get still them from retro shops with the red tips removed. So they’re just white sticks, really.

Anyway, I mention my nicotine nostalgia in relation to the recent threat from the European Union to ban electronic cigarettes; arguably the modern adult equivalent.

E-cigs are much healthier than tobacco cigarettes because ‘smokers’ do not inhale the same carcinogens – just the nicotine. They are also better for the surrounding environment, since the ‘smoke’ they emit is merely vapour. You can imagine that if they really catch on they will not only reduce the incidence of lung cancer but also bring smokers back into the pub, or at least enable them to stay in the indoor conversation without having to nip out for a fag.

Pubs, though, seem to be nervous about seizing this opportunity. Very few, that I can find, sell e-cigarettes. A friend of mine was once puffing on his e-cig in the pub and he was almost roughly bundled out the door before the staff established his actions were perfectly legal.

The EU’s objection, which is much the same as the objection to sweet cigarettes, is that they are a form of gateway drug. People might start on e-cigs and before you know it they’ll be on Capstan Full Strength. But surely this, to me, small possibility is vastly outweighed by the benefits. E-cigs could be a very effective method of what those in the drugs and alcohol field call harm reduction.

What lies behind the EU’s stance is, I suspect, a feeling that e-cigarettes are cheating by making possible a relatively healthy nicotine hit. And it doesn’t really like the idea of people taking drugs without any bad consequences.

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About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to www.philmellows.com
You can also follow Phil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/philmellows

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