Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 2000
Faceless, greedy pub companies are bad news for local pubs
A major trend of recent years has been the way the big brewers have sold off their tenanted estates to new pub companies such as Pubmaster and Enterprise Inns. You're now more likely to find your local owned by a Japanese bank than a local brewery. You may wonder what interest a Japanese bank may have in running pubs in England, and the answer is none - their interest is purely in making money, and they look at their pubs as a property portfolio. The same is true to some degree for all the other new pub companies. Their aim is to spend as little money as they can get away with, and raise the rent as high as they can, so long as the tenants can manage to struggle on in business.
And they will find that struggle ever more difficult. The big brewers have kept the cream of their estates for themselves, and spent a lot of money on them developing branded concepts from Chef & Brewer to All Bar One. At the same time, new operators, notably Wetherspoon's and Yates's, have themselves invested heavily in developing their own brands. You may not think much of these concepts, but at least they give the pubgoer a clear view of the style of pub to expect, and they are undeniably successful.
In the past, pub tenants would at least know that they came under the umbrella of a brewery who had an interest in selling their beers through their pubs, would spend money promoting their brand and who would assist tenants with business plans. But nobody cares which faceless pub company owns their local, and they certainly won't spend any money advertising the fact. Pub company leaseholders, however hard they work at the job, are going to find it increasingly hard to compete against the big boys with their expensively-promoted pub brands and lavish investment budgets. The pub companies usually also deny their tenants the one weapon they could use to fight back - the right to stock a range of interesting real ales as well as the dull mass-market brands you can find in all of the big boys' pubs too.
Is the unisex toilet on its way to your local?
A number of new office developments in London are apparently incorporating unisex toilets, as seen in "Ally McBeal", so how long will it be before we see this phenomenon spreading to pubs? It's certainly common in foreign bars, but it's generally seen as an indicator that foreigners are less civilised than we are. It should help reduce queues in the ladies - and also ensure that there's a seat and a supply of loo roll if a man needs to use "the trap". But, on the other hand, there have been numerous objections from women on the grounds that the toilet is a vital space for gossiping, and they don't want to be exposed to men's noxious smells and general lack of hygiene.
There is, of course, a sound natural reason for having different kinds of facilities. However, there seems to be a growing dog-in-the-manger attitude that, as women can't use urinals, men shouldn't have them either, even though they are quick and convenient. This has led to the disappearance of the male-only public urinals which were once common in our towns and cities. (I think there may still be one in Glossop, but, there again, Glossop's way behind the times anyway). Help may be at hand, though, as a Swedish sanitary ware manufacturer has struck a blow for equality by developing a special female urinal that has appeared in at least one trendy London nightclub. But somehow I think it will be a long time before we see them in the Holts estate.