2016: Still crucial work to do on the campaign to reform the pub trade

My Bank Holiday Monday was partly spent advising a friend who wanted to stop her local pub closing. At the same time I was lending a hand with another pub campaign.
2015 was genuinely an historic year for Britain’s pub trade. But licensees and consumers cheering the new legislation for England and Wales still have a job to do to ensure that the Fair Deal for your Local enshrined in law is actually delivered. And while Britain’s pubs are in the hands of asset-stripping vulture pub companies, there is still much work for the activist to do.  The first part of that job is responding to the Government consultation which has less than three weeks to run.

The helpful tweak to the Asset of Community Value designation made by then-Minister Stephen Williams has already proved hugely valuable in saving dozens of pubs and stopping the rush of pub-to-supermarket conversions. Though it needs to be written up in simpler language accessible to those who find their boozer under threat, there is now a list of helpful steps people can take. CAMRA’s major strategy review in 2016 will hopefully at last acknowledge that real ale no longer needs to be saved, but the place in which it is served – the pub – does as a top priority. And again, after a while, we’ve a Community Pubs Minister who is engaged, engaging and seems to be pro-pub. Marcus Jones will be tested more in 2016, though.

For those of us at the forefront of the campaign for pubco reform, we have a busy few months ahead as the Government finalises the detail of the Pubs Code.  What appeared to be an underhand attempt to weaken the Code was ripped apart in the House of Lords by Labour and Lib Dem peers, who in an unlikely move overturned the Government by amending the Enterprise Bill in order to see the Small Business Act strengthened – it was only granted Royal Assent in March!  The Minister has acknowledged the ‘genuine concerns’ and revised some of its original proposals; there are signs that some of the concerns are. Due more to cock-up than conspiracy.  Freedom of Information requests, though, have confirmed that the old BIS revolving door for pubco mouthpieces has been brought out of storage; mandarins are attempting to block other FoI requests that may uncover attempts by pubcos to undermine the rules.  Either way, we know the pubcos are still at it.

In Scotland the CGA Strategy study into the sector for the Holyrood Government will get under way in 2016. Given that we know that in 2013 Punch Taverns (Scotland’s biggest pubco) wrote letters to the UK Government consultation on behalf of its licensees, the outcome of this study will deserve close scrutiny. Either way, from May Scottish tied pubs will get a worse deal than those in the rest of the UK, with not only no statutory code of practice but any investment being concentrated south of the border as pubcos try and trade it off – one unfortunate consequence of a concession thrown by the Tories to their pubco mates.
So the long-term future of the British pub remains the subject of hot debate, with little sign of a thaw in relations between pubcos and campaigners many of whom would like to find ways of working together if only the pubcos had any interest in giving licensees and consumers a better deal.

At the fringes remain the tobacco lobby and a diminishing gaggle of idiots who support them, pretending that nothing has happened to the pub trade bar the smoking ban and that no other law needs to change (bar repeal of protection for pubs in planning law). Of course, the evidence of ever more successful community pub reopenings, the trail of destruction left by the pubco scam and the microbrewery explosion is unfortunate for them.

More relevant, and more dangerous is the anti-alcohol lobby whose campaigns discourage pub use at the most difficult time of the year for publicans – January. How ironic that these puritans end up promoting unsupervised drinking from supermarkets which by its nature is more likely to be drinking to excess, while actively damaging community facilities which provide places for otherwise lonely, often elderly people to socialise. The charities pushing such initiatives should be ashamed of themselves. Two great initiatives that promote a better way emerged during 2015. Anyone wanting to limit or quit drinking should back the excellent Club Soda campaign which is getting wider recognition. Those who don’t, should support Tryanuary and use the month as a celebration of Britain’s amazing diverse microbrewery scene.

(Tryanuary has earned the ultimate accolade – its slogan has been nicked by industry mouthpiece the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, which would rather we all drunk boring mass-produced booze instead.)

So see you down the pub in 2016.  To try something new.

Minimum alcohol pricing outlawed; what should replace it?

Few will shed a tear at today’s news that minimum alcohol pricing has been ruled illegal under European competition law.  While it was a legitimate attempt to deal with a serious problem of alcohol-related harm and cheap supermarket sales, it was a messy solution that would have caused as many problems as it would have solved.

However, there are other solutions needing to be discussed.  Some relatively unheralded research has taken place by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), highlighting some of the inconsistencies in taxation and suggesting solutions.  Their work isn’t perfect – in particular, it doesn’t seem to grasp the different challenges faced by the on- and off-trade.  But it is generally pointing in the right direction.

Among the key facts to be grasped are:-

  • Alcohol sales in the on-trade (pubs) have faced real-terms price inflation including tax over the last quarter century.  By contrast, off-trade sales, exacerbated by supermarket deregulation, have seen price reductions as well as the tax burden fall
  • Beer, a key product for the on-trade (and produced more by local or small-scale businesses, going through a renaissance at the moment), is taxed higher than other forms of alcohol (hence wine and spirits facing the brunt under minimum pricing)
  • Beer is the only drink to be taxed at a relatively steady amount per unit.

The IFS suggests reforming tax on wine and spirits to be by unit.  This would not affect the price of most products, particularly Scotch whisky, but (they think) would have a beneficial overall effect on excessive drinking.

There is something in what they are saying, if only they would address the disparity between on- and off-trade tax too. Alcohol consumed in a supervised environment (a pub) is less likely to lead to health or crime concerns, after all.  But the UK Treasury doesn’t understand that.

There is one last catch.  Just about any change to alcohol tax needs a change to EU law.  So why not not bite the bullet and deal with all these problems together?  Reform the tax system *and* reduce the tax disparity between the supermarket and the local, thus reducing harm and protecting jobs at a stroke.

Ending The Great British Pubco Scam – One Year On

Today marks the first anniversary of one of the greatest days in my life – not (just) for the first and only defeat of the Coalition Government on legislation.  It marks Parliament voting for meaningful reform of the tied pub industry that numbered around half of Britain’s 50,000 pubs.  More importantly, it marks the sign that Britain wants to see the Great British Pubco Scam ended.

One year on, what has happened?   Given the inevitable passage of time while legislation is enacted, what can we see?

At the moment, we have a Government failing to come to terms with what they have to do, an industry desperately using every possible trick to evade the legislation before it comes into force, and campaigners frustrated again into action to highlight the damage to publicans, to jobs and to communities.

We have seen the draft Pubs Code published last month after a summer of silence…. with a consultation split into two parts, for reasons yet to be made clear.  It has omitted key parts of the primary legislation in a manner that has rightly infuriated campaigners and led to angry exchanges in the unusual surroundings of the Grand Committee of the House of Lords (as I blogged here a fortnight ago).  After the Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe was embarrassed at the despatch box, with glances at her officials that could have killed at ten paces, a partial U-turn was made but with still no understanding of the Act of Parliament.   There will be a further fight in Parliament unless this is sorted out.

We also have yet to see legislation implemented in Scotland, where there are fewer tied pubs but the same issues exist.

Meanwhile the pubcos affected by the legislation have been busy.  They have sold off some 2,000 pubs between them.  Punch has taken the headlines by flogging over 150 pubs to supermarket converter New River, over the heads of licensees – but Enterprise has reportedly sold more.  Reports from licensees suggest the usual threats and coercion from pubcos have subtly shifted focus, to force those attracted by the Market Rent Only option into situations where it would not be made available to them.  This is in spite of the Government’s intention to restrict its availability anyway.  Meanwhile Admiral Taverns has just stuck to selling award-winning pubs without giving the incumbent publicans the right to buy, explicitly because it operates a business arrangement akin to Market Rent Only – which is why it won those awards!

So the Great British Pubco Scam continues.  And so we must continue to campaign to end it before our pub heritage is destroyed by corporate asset-stripping against the will of Parliament.

I had the opportunity to speak to Pubs Minister Marcus Jones at an event last night to celebrate pubs heritage.  Unlike his two immediate predecessors he is engaged in the issues.  I told him exactly what the Government needed to do.  He should also remember what happened a year ago – when the Government was defeated after many Tory MPs rebelled and voted for enterprise and jobs.
(Postscript: I forgot to mention how embarrassing the vote was for the multi-million pound pubco lobbying organisation the BBPA to be defeated by a coalition whose budget was tuppence ha’penny! How silly of me.)

Fair Deal for your Local: Secrets of a winning campaign

It is excellent news that PR Week magazine has shortlisted the Fair Deal for your Local campaign for its 2015 Awards.

I spent two years as the volunteer co-ordinating the public affairs output among other things.  The campaign coalition – broad as it is – had historically been less than cohesive, which gave officials the excuse not to act on the grounds that they could say it was divided.

In eighteen months from the launch (above) we achieved the only defeat of the Coalition Government on legislation thanks to a rebellion by Conservative and Lib Dem MPs.  There is more work to be done (particularly in Scotland), but within the next year the pub trade will have protection, and exploitative pubco practices will be outlawed.

How could such a disparate bunch of campaigners, with no real budget at all (we spent barely a couple of grand) do this?  Well, this is something I am currently writing up, but here are three quick pointers.

1. We had a clear strategic objective and goal, and knew what we had to do from the start – and that included producing an evidence base that would stand up to scrutiny under attack from the well-resourced pubco lobby.

2. We made real people the heroes.  Frontline publicans, deployed all across the UK, could make a huge difference just by telling their own stories.  I saw this myself when as my local CAMRA branch public affairs officer I took a local Conservative MP for a meeting in a tied pub.  But those frontline publicans could do other things too, such as use social media.  Which brings me to….

3. Being unafraid to let people express themselves.  That army of helpers did not merely parrot centrally-designed infographics and the like.  (No budget for that anyway!)  They got on social media and made their own.  Hundreds of the things!  And although the accompanying language was at times direct, it was incredibly effective.

The real heroes of this campaign are people you would never think of as being at a PR award.  But heroes they are.  I’m just glad to have helped in such a great campaign.

You can sign up to Fair Deal for your Local on Facebook among other things.