Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2006

* Passing the Baton *

More than ever before, a good licensee can make all the difference to a pub

The long-serving licensee of a popular, Good Beer Guide listed pub has announced that they are leaving, and inevitably there are worries that the character of the pub will change overnight. In the past, when most pubs were owned by breweries, this wasn’t too much of a concern. The new licensee would probably keep things much the same, and you just had to hope he would keep his beer as well as the outgoing one. Also, a brewery had an interest in what was sold in the pub, as its name was above the door. If the brewery wanted to be known for selling real ale, then they would ensure that real ale was provided to their pubs.

Now that the majority of pubs have passed into the hands of pub companies, things are different. Large numbers have lost their real ale, as it’s no longer possible to point the finger at Brewery X and say “you have a poor record”. Nobody notices which pub company a pub belongs to.

More than has been the case for many years, a pub’s commitment to good beer, and to many other things too, is mostly down to the approach of the licensee. Someone who is enterprising and imaginative can turn round a previously mediocre establishment, but someone who can’t be bothered, particularly on the beer front, can easily wreck all the good work. Therefore we need to champion the achievements of the good licensees, and recognise that just because a pub was good five or ten years ago is no guarantee that it still will be today.

* Obscured by Smoke *

The licensed trade are being made to suffer uncertainty and extra cost over the smoking ban

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the smoking ban, it is a fact of life that it is coming in around the middle of next year, and pubs need to start preparing for it. However, their task has been made more difficult by the government dragging their feet on clarifying the regulations that will apply. Many pubs will be looking to make substantial investment in beer gardens, smoking shelters and patio heaters, and need clear guidelines as to exactly what will be allowed and what won’t be. But it’s unlikely that these will be published until December, leaving precious little time.

In Scotland the official guidelines were couched in very vague terms and subject to widely varying interpretation by different local authorities, which left licensees simply not knowing where they stood. Only 1% of Scottish pubs were able to successfully obtain planning permission for smoking shelters before the ban came in.

It also seems totally over the top to require pubs to put up “no smoking” signs at every entrance, when there will be a general presumption that smoking is not permitted in public areas anyway. And, when it’s impossible to supervise every area of a pub all the time, is it reasonable to fine a licensee £2500 for failing to spot someone lighting up on the premises?

You might have thought it would be in the government’s interest to get the licensed trade onside to bring the ban in as smoothly as possible. But unfortunately it seems that instead pubs are being hit with extra cost, regulation and uncertainty.

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