Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2009

* Night Half-Life *

Is Stockport’s night-time economy in need of revival and, if so, how?

A RECENT Friday night pub crawl around central Stockport found a couple of perfectly decent pubs very quiet, and the Underbanks eerily deserted at around 10 pm. Some pubs such as the Crown, Railway and Arden Arms do well, but overall Stockport very much lacks the vibrant “night-time economy” of many of the other major towns in Greater Manchester. There’s also a marked dearth of restaurants in the town centre over and above the usual fast food outlets. It seems as though, if people want a good night out, they head off to Manchester rather than remaining in the town.

So what could be done to make the town centre a bit more lively and welcoming in the evenings? One major factor must be the effective banning of traffic in the town centre streets. Pedestrianised streets may work during normal shopping hours, but in the evening they turn an area into a dead zone. If the dreaded rising bollards on Underbank were permanently retracted after 4 pm, and traffic was allowed along Princes Street after 6 pm, it could well make a big difference. However, you have to be careful what you wish for, as it is highly likely that a revitalisation of night-time Stockport would mostly just lead to the spread of chain bars and takeaways. As an alternative, maybe what Stockport needs to do is to promote its unparalleled collection of high-quality traditional pubs rather than just trying to ape every other town centre in the region. “Stockport - the civilised night out” might not be too bad a slogan.

* Punch Drunk *

The recession has exposed the pub company business model as unsustainable

FOR A NUMBER of years, I’ve held the view that the giant pub companies were ultimately unsustainable. The key reason for this was that they had no unique selling proposition. It’s quite clear what differentiates a Robinson’s pub, or a Wetherspoon’s pub, from the competition, but what does a Punch pub have that an Enterprise Inns one doesn’t? They were far more driven by financial engineering than pub retailing.

Now, with the recession, the chickens are really coming home to roost, with Enterprise and especially Punch Taverns in an increasingly precarious financial position. Apparently Punch’s debts now exceed the total value of their property portfolio. In these circumstances, it’s not surprising that they’re engaged in a fire sale of their crown jewels to various family brewers. In the South-East, Fullers, Charles Wells and Adnams have benefited from this, and now in the North-West first Lees and now Robinson’s have bought tranches of pubs from Punch.

In the longer term, this is likely to lead to a major shift in the balance of power in the pub trade away from the pub companies as heirs of the former Big Six national brewers towards the family brewers, who were once derided as an anachronism. You have to wonder whether the heirs of defunct companies such as Home and Vaux might feel a twinge of regret about selling out. And how long can we expect the giant pub companies to survive in anything like their current form?

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