Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 2000

* An Unfair Tax *

The hidden threat to pubs from the workplace parking levy

Tens of thousands of pubs across the country will be subjected to a new and unfair tax burden if local authorities implement government proposals to tax workplace parking. Under these plans, every employer, however small, will have to apply for a licence for a set number of employees and trade visitors to park on the premises. This will apply whether or not the establishment is actually served by any public transport, and licensees will even be expected to pay for the privilege of parking their own cars at their own pub. The minimum charge is likely to be at least 200 per year per parking space, and in some areas could be considerably more. It is completely irrelevant to efforts to deter drink-driving as it excludes parking for retail customers.

Many pubs, even within Greater Manchester, can't be reached by public transport, particularly in the evenings. For most others, buses and trains will have stopped running by the time bar staff shifts finish at 11.30 pm or later. Even if there are good late-night connections, female bar staff are unlikely to feel very safe waiting alone at the bus stop at a quarter to midnight. If and when evening closing is extended, the problem will be made worse.

Even a small pub could easily find itself having to pay 1000 a year for the licensee, his or her partner and three bar staff. This could be enough to push some struggling pubs in out-of-town locations over the edge to closure. Since the purpose of the tax is supposedly to encourage the use of public transport, it is grossly unfair to levy it where there is no practical public transport alternative. If it is to be brought in at all, surely it should be restricted to workplaces where there are reasonable public transport connections and employees work something close to normal office hours.

* Not A Drop to Drink *

Pubs with no real ale tend to offer a poor choice of bottled beers and everything else

In these days when so many pubs are regrettably switching over to the dreaded nitrokeg, the beer lover is increasingly likely, in the course of general socialising, to find him or herself in pubs without any real ale. But of course there has been such an upsurge in the range of distinctive bottled beers on sale that some respite should surely be at hand - even the top shelf of your local Victoria Wine will now have ten or more bottles worth drinking.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that in pubs, and the level of choice of draught and bottled products seems to go hand-in-hand. Specialist real ale free houses usually also offer an impressive range of British and imported bottles, while independent brewery tied houses may well have a few bottles produced by that brewery - Sam Smith's being particularly noteworthy - to go alongside their real ale. But a keg pub supplied by the national brewers is likely to be a bottled beer desert too.

There's no reason why even the most determinedly keg pub couldn't offer a handful of the best-known premium bottled ales - even Old Speckled Hen, Abbot, 6X and Pedigree would be a damn sight better than nothing at all. But, all too often, a lack of interest in the draught beer range goes hand-in-hand with a lack of imagination, quality and variety in everything else that is on offer behind the bar. Keg pubs are even far less likely to stock a range of malt whiskies!

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