Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2008

* No Sign of the Inn *

Banning pub signs on the grounds that they may encourage drink-driving is an absurd overreaction

IN ONE OF the most ludicrous and extreme examples of anti-alcohol political correctness I have yet seen, Wiltshire County Council have joined forces with the Highways Agency to compel pubs to remove roadside direction signs pointing to pubs off the A303 trunk road, on the grounds that they may act as an incentive to drink-driving.

Do they really think that long-distance drivers on seeing one of these signs will pull off the main road, have a skinful at the Dog & Duck and then return to the highways to cause carnage? The idea that in practice they will act as any kind of incentive to drink-drive offending is simply incredible. To be consistent, are they going to also demand the removal of signs pointing to any other establishment with an alcohol licence, such as hotels or restaurants, not to mention supermarkets? And will pubs already situated by the roadside have to remove all advertising material?

Nowadays, most country pubs derive a large part of their income from food, to the extent of some having become to all intents and purposes restaurants. For the vast majority of drivers, these signs say one thing: “Here is somewhere to stop for food and take a break”. There is no compulsion to have any alcohol at all, and most pubs will offer a far wider range of soft drinks than motorway service areas or roadside diners, plus better food and a more relaxing atmosphere. And the point must also be made that drinking alcohol before driving is still permitted in this country so long as you do not exceed the prescribed legal limit. This is a nonsensical overreaction only too typical of current official hysteria about alcohol, and represents another small, subtle nail in the coffin of the British pub.

* Shelter from the Storm *

Few pubs can genuinely claim to be safe from the gale sweeping the trade

IN A RECENT issue of “Opening Times”, the editor said that he didn’t believe well-run pubs had anything to fear from the smoking ban or the credit crunch. Now I can see what he’s getting at, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a very complacent comment. Over the past year or so, the pub trade has taken an absolute battering from the two factors he mentioned, and if the total amount of trade drops obviously it is going to be the less well run and appealing outlets that suffer most.

However, pubs cannot simply be divided between good and bad, and in reality there are a huge mass between the two extremes that provide a decent enough service to their customers but are never going to be places you’d travel miles to visit. And it’s not only the obvious no-hopers that have shut their doors forever, but large numbers in this middle ground too. Indeed I could mention one pub not too far from here that appeared in the Good Beer Guide for a number of years up to and including the 2008 edition – so presumably counting as one of the four thousand best in the country – but has now been closed and boarded for more than a year.

We need to be quite clear about this – it may well be the case that Pub A has closed rather than Pub B because it was worse run, but the overall reason why so many pubs have closed recently is because the total demand for pubs has fallen. In the past, plenty of pubs seemed to thrive despite offering poor standards of beer and service, but those days have long passed. Sadly, even being well above average on many fronts is no longer a guarantee of survival.

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