Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2000

* Longer Hours, Fewer Pubs *

Despite CAMRA's enthusiasm, a licensing free-for-all will be bad news for traditional pubs and beer

In 1989, the announcement of the Beer Orders was greeted by CAMRA as opening up a new golden age for quality and choice in the beer market. But the reality turned out to be very different, as the ensuing shake-up of the industry led to the concentration of market share in ever fewer hands, the closure of numerous established independent breweries, and the removal of real ale from huge swathes of our pub stock. Some of these things would have happened anyway, but the Beer Orders made matters much worse.

Now we are told that the government's plans for a complete shake-up of licensing law, opening up the possibility of much later closing times and even 24-hour opening, are great news for drinkers that will give traditional pubs and beer a shot in the arm. Well, I'm sorry to cast a dampener on things, but the only part of the licensed trade it will do much to help is city-centre bottle bars.

Previous experience with all-day opening shows that the overall amount of trade will not increase, it will just be spread over a longer period of time, thus inevitably putting up costs. And bar staff are likely to demand premium payments for working into the small hours. The effect will be to widen further the price gap between the on- and off-trade. 10p on a 2.30 bottle of Bud might not make much difference to the bottle-swigging circuit drinker, but an extra 10p on the price of a pint in the local may lead many drinkers, particularly older ones and those on a budget, to forsake the pub in favour of cheaper booze from the supermarket or the local bootlegger.

If pubs are allowed to open substantially later, there will also be great potential for noise and disruption in residential areas, which is a genuine fear, not just the moans of a few killjoys. Now, I like a drink, but I don't want drunken shouting and taxi doors slamming at two in the morning when I'm trying to get a good night's sleep. If, in response to these concerns, "local" pubs are made to close much earlier than those in town and city centres, it will accelerate the drift of customers away to central drinking circuits, which are much less likely to include traditional pubs serving real ale.

The proposal to take licensing out of the hands of magistrates and give it to local authorities will turn it into a political battleground. Imagine the potential for conflict in areas such as Didsbury where there is a busy circuit, all of the pubs on which will want to open much later, and a large, vocal and organised resident population. There will also be problems with comparability between different areas - if Manchester allows Didsbury pubs to stay open until 1 a.m., licensees two miles down the road in Cheadle will feel aggrieved, and lose trade, if Stockport insists on them closing at midnight.

The belief that a licensing free-for-all will be good news for traditional pubs and beer is a triumph of hope over experience. The pub inhabits a fragile eco-system and, if you open it up to the winds of change, there is a real risk that much of what we cherish will be blown away. Last month, Roger Hall wrote about the decline of the traditional pub spreading out of the inner-city into the suburbs, and this change will accelerate the process. Undoubtedly there is a strong case for some measure of reform, but what is proposed goes much too far...

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