Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2008

* The End of the Road? *

The reeling pub trade now faces a knockout blow from cutting the drink-drive limit

EIGHT YEARS ago, pubgoers and licensees across the country breathed a profound sigh of relief when the government announced that they were not going to go ahead with the cut in the drink-drive limit that had been proposed a couple of years earlier. However, as I said at the time, there was no guarantee that the government would not return to the issue in the future, and so it has proved. Newspapers have reported that they are once again planning to reduce the limit from 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg (approximately the equivalent of a reduction from two pints of ordinary-strength beer to one) and that this change is likely to come in within eighteen months.

There can be no doubt that this would result in a drastic reduction in the trade of pubs outside of urban centres and over a few years lead to many thousands of pub closures. The greatly diminished number of licensed premises that remained in out-of-town areas would become to all intents and purposes restaurants and lose their pub character. A pub is defined not by its architecture, but by the way it is used. Effectively, traditional pubs would survive only around major public transport hubs and in areas where there was enough trade within easy walking distance to sustain them. For many people, going to a pub other than to have a meal would become a complete irrelevance.

It would be naïve to assume that urban areas such as Greater Manchester would be unaffected, as even here large numbers of people visit pubs by car and on the fringes of the area there are many pubs with an overwhelmingly car-borne trade. It must also be borne in mind that over 70% of people in Greater Manchester travel to work by car and would have to be more circumspect about their alcohol consumption on weekday evenings to avoid the “morning-after” effect.

The present negative trends in the drinks market will be made worse, with drinking at home encouraged over the relatively controlled environment of the pub, and people further deterred from regular moderate drinking in favour of excessive consumption on the rare occasions when they know they will not be driving for a long time.

While this is presented as a safety measure, there is no guarantee that it will save a single life. The vast majority of those killed in accidents attributed to drink-driving are already well over the current limit and it is hard to see how a limit cut would have any effect on their behaviour. Conversely, as it is impossible to predict exactly what effect a given amount of drink will have on blood alcohol levels, those wishing to keep within the law are likely to play it safe and remain well below 80 mg, at which levels their driving is unlikely to be impaired much if at all. It will erode respect for the law and could even encourage some people to actually drink more before driving if they believe they are unlikely to be caught. Any limit is useless if it is not actually enforced.

The present government seems hell-bent on destroying the pub trade and has already inflicted savage blows in the form of the smoking ban and the swingeing increase in beer duty, resulting in pubs currently closing at an unprecedented rate. Across large swathes of the country, cutting the drink-drive limit is likely to finish the job.

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