Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2002
Political control of licensing decisions would be bad news for licensees and drinkers
Many pubgoers are eagerly awaiting the government's long-heralded move to relax Britain's antiquated licensing laws and allow later closing times where there's a demand. However, integral to these plans is a proposal to transfer the responsibility for licensing from magistrates, as at present, to local authorities. This may seem like an extension of democracy, but when fewer than a third of the electorate take part in local elections, and most of them choose how to vote mainly on national issues, it is hard to see the average voter in the pub having much say on licensing policy.
Anyone with experience of local authority decisions in other fields knows that they are often based on narrow political considerations, and can be wildly inconsistent between different authorities. There is also a distinct risk that the licensing process will become bogged down in bureaucracy and political correctness. Far from supporting community pubs, councils are likely further to encourage the creation of "drinking ghettos", by being much more willing to grant extended hours to town-centre pubs than ones in residential areas where there are numerous voters who don't want late-night drunks in their neighbourhood.
Many senior trade figures such as Tim Martin of Wetherspoon's have expressed serious concern about this plan, while Chief Superintendent Simon Humphrey, head of the Metropolitan Police licensing unit, has told an industry conference that he would "rue the day" if the proposed move goes ahead, saying the introduction of politics into licensing could threaten basic human rights.
What the licensed trade needs is a simple, clear-cut regulatory framework that is applied in a consistent and impartial manner, something that non-political licensing benches are far better equipped to provide than local authorities.
Drown your sorrows as one of Britain's finest breweries falls victim to short-term greed
Some of my fondest drinking memories are of sampling Brakspear's beers in unspoilt little rustic pubs hidden away amongst the Chiltern beechwoods. Brakspear's is no run-of-the-mill local brewery - they produce some of the finest beers in the country, generously-hopped, but with a truly distinctive bitter-sweet character. Their ordinary bitter, although a modest 3.4% ABV, is widely regarded as the absolute classic of the style. So I was particularly saddened to learn that the Henley-on-Thames family brewer had become the latest to decide to sell out and close the brewery. Drinkers should make every effort to try the beers while they still have the chance.
But this shouldn't be taken to mean that the remaining family brewers are doomed. Several others of a similar size to Brakspear's are thriving, and Brakspear's themselves were brought low not because they had a poor product or an unappealing estate, but because their management ill-advisedly staked too much on supplying national pub companies at knock-down prices.
This should be a lesson for any of the newer micro-breweries who want to enjoy a long-term future. The keystone of success is always going to be a strong core of local support, and becoming too dependent on the fickle and cut-throat national free trade is a very risky course.