Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 2007

* Priced Out *

Higher taxation may make alcohol problems worse, not better

A RECENT REPORT by a Conservative Party study group recommended a 7p a pint tax increase on beer (which would probably end up as at least 20p at the bar) with the proceeds going to fund treatment programmes for problem drinkers. Something tells me that is unlikely to be a vote-winner.

Obviously basic economics teaches us that if you increase the price of alcohol it will tend to reduce overall consumption. However, that reduction wouldn’t be distributed evenly across the board. Budget-conscious drinkers such as pensioners may feel forced to cut down, and those for whom a drink is an occasional treat may decide it is no longer worth it. On the other hand, those with a genuine drink problem are likely to scrimp on other expenses, while many of those causing trouble in town centres at weekends are young people with a high disposable income who will scarcely notice the difference. Higher prices will also encourage more people to shun the controlled, socialised environment of the pub in favour of drinking cheaper booze from the supermarket at home. Raising prices may cut average alcohol consumption, but it won’t necessarily cut alcohol problems.

The UK already has some of the highest alcohol taxation in Europe and is by no means at the top of the consumption league. Countries with lower taxation often seem to deal with alcohol in a more civilised manner. This suggests that the causes of the problems people complain about lie much more in our general social attitudes to drinking. Matters are being made worse not so much by low prices as by the current tendency towards the demonisation of alcohol, which deters the regular, moderate drinking that is the key to keeping the “demon drink” in its place, but ironically encourages many to adopt an “all or nothing” approach.

* When is a Pub not a Pub? *

Does there come a point when the dining pub is no longer deserving of the name?

AWARD-WINNING pub company Brunning & Price are bringing their estate much closer to Manchester with the acquisition of Sutton Hall near Macclesfield which they are currently in the process of refurbishing.

From time to time pubs owned by B&P have been featured in “Opening Times”, and they deserve praise for their sensitive renovations, their promotion of real ales from local micro-breweries and the extensive use of fresh local ingredients on their menus. But it has to be said that the ambiance of their establishments is basically that of an upmarket rustic restaurant, rather than the traditional pub whose primary purpose was for people to gather and socialise over a drink or two. Would you really expect a pub to offer a menu including “fennel pesto” and “sweet basil and ginger dressing” and featuring main courses around £15?

Obviously pubs have to tailor what they offer to the people who are likely to visit them, and a Brunning & Price house is never going to be the place for the working man to go for a bacon buttie and a few games of darts and doms. But there must come a point when the relentless drive to take pubs upmarket and concentrate more and more on dining means that an establishment can no longer in any meaningful sense be regarded as a pub as it used to be understood.

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