Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 2010
Claiming that the smoking ban has not led to pub closures reflects a head-in-the-sand attitude
A COUPLE of months before the General Election, then Home Office minister Gillian Merron made the astonishing statement that: “The pub trade does have challenges and I am aware of that but it isn’t the case that the ban had led to pub closures.” Really? Not even a single one? This comment flew in the face of the vast weight of anecdotal evidence that the ban has had a severe impact on the trade of pubs, and the statements from virtually every brewer and pub company reporting their results that it has hit their sales and profits.
In the words of one licensee, “The smoking ban has certainly caused most pubs, especially those that were traditional drinking outlets (like mine, for example), a lot of pain – and it has caused a lot to close, too. To say it hasn’t is, frankly, ridiculous and shows a severe lack of knowledge of the problems the pub trade is facing right now.”
Even if you disagreed with her, she might have commanded a modicum of respect if she had said, "We accept that the smoking ban has resulted in some pub closures but we believe that this is a small price to pay for the sake of the nation's health,” or words to that effect. But she didn’t. It was gratifying, then, to see her lose her seat in Lincoln on May 6th with an above average swing against Labour.
Before the ban, we had to endure similar nonsense from its supporters claiming that non-smokers would be attracted back to pubs in droves, and that there was no way that the anti-smoking campaign would metamorphose into a similar campaign against alcohol, both of which have proved to be completely unfounded. Anyone who wants to stand up for pubs and responsible drinking in the future must honestly confront the political and social climate affecting them rather than continuing to deny the reality.
Is the large-scale conversion of pubs to ethnic restaurants viable in the long term?
A NOTICEABLE feature travelling around the North and Midlands is the large number of former pubs that have been converted to ethnic restaurants, sometimes Chinese but more often than not Indian. Recently we have acquired two local examples, with the Robin Hood at the south end of Hazel Grove becoming a “Thai Fusion” restaurant and the Wrights Arms at Offerton – a pub in a good location that never seemed to make the most of its potential – currently in the process of being converted to an Indian.
You do have to wonder, though, exactly where all the custom for these conversions comes from. Surely the factors that have affected the pub trade in these kinds of locations apply equally to restaurants. Restaurants benefit, perhaps even more than pubs, from clustering together in town and village centres rather than being on isolated sites. Also, people tend to look for a kind of intimacy of scale in restaurants – sitting in splendid isolation in an echoing room on a Tuesday night in November isn’t going to be very appealing. And they’re essentially more limited in their trade – you can have a full sit-down meal in a pub, but people don’t visit restaurants for just a quick drink or a snack.
Obviously there must be a superfically attractive business case for these conversions, or they wouldn’t happen, but it’s sad to see so many once-thriving pubs lost. And are out-of-town ethnic restaurants really all that viable anyway? I’ve seen a fair number of former Little Chefs converted in this way that have closed again within a couple of years, although the one on the A6 at New Mills Newtown does seem to be trading again after a period of closure.