Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 2005
The aims of the new licensing laws are being subverted by a strident minority
I've recently been looking at a number of pubs’ applications for extended hours under the new licensing regime that begins in November. In general, what they're asking for is very modest – typically an extra hour at night, a couple of hours on Fridays and Saturdays, and some relaxation of drinking-up time. Very few licensees are being greedy, and any fears of “24-hour drinking” seem wildly misplaced.
Yet this is still too much for some, and it was disappointing to see that, following objections from local residents, Stockport Council had refused two well-known pubs in the borough any extension whatsoever, not even an extra hour at weekends. While there had been problems with the behaviour of a few drinkers, these are mainstream pubs, serving real ale, with a wide range of customers, and it seems harsh to deny them any chance to improve matters.
That extra hour may seem trivial, but in reality it is likely to have a major impact on the viability of a pub. Half of all pub takings are on Friday and Saturday nights, and if people are planning a night out, it is very likely that a lot of them will avoid the pubs where they are going to be kicked out shortly after 11 o’clock. If pubs within a short distance of each other are granted substantially different hours, council officials will be effectively deciding the success or failure of individual establishments. Obviously we will need to see how things work out in practice, but there is a serious risk that, for many pubs and their customers, the new licensing laws will bring no benefit, just a huge increase in cost and bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, in many areas there is a vocal minority of curtain-twitchers who don’t want to see local pubs extending their hours by even a tiny amount, and at heart would probably be happy to see them closed altogether. It would be a great pity if in the long term their influence were to lead to the the eclipse of neighbourhood pubs and the further encouragement of town-centre drinking ghettoes. However, it also gives pub operators a clear message that, if they do want to extend their hours, it is important to get their local communities on side.
Despite longer hours, you may not be able to get in the pub at all when you turn up
EVEN IF pubs are granted extended hours, they may not necessarily use them all, and it could become more and more difficult to find out exactly when they are open, something that was noticeable after all-day opening was introduced in the 1980s. This doesn't matter if you are a local, but if you are travelling some distance to an unfamiliar pub it can be a major disappointment to find it closed. There were complaints from people doing the recent Mild Challenge that many of the pubs on the list were closed when they turned up. The extra hours at night may lead to putting back early evening opening, or dropping lunchtimes altogether.
It may also be a lottery whether you are actually able to get in pubs after 11 pm, even if they are still serving. Surely it will make sense for all pubs to display clearly outside the hours when they actually guarantee to be open, and to let customers in, even if at times they do stay open for longer. But all too few do that now, so don't hold your breath.