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.