Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2013
Initiatives targeted at street drinkers may also hit responsible consumers
IN AN ATTEMPT to curb the problem of street drinking, a number of local authorities have recently implemented an initiative called “Reducing the Strength”, whereby off-licences are invited to enter into agreements not to sell beers and ciders above a certain strength. Ipswich and Hastings have set the bar at 6.5% ABV, but Newcastle have lowered it to a mere 5%. While these agreements are supposedly voluntary, there is undoubtedly a significant amount of arm-twisting involved.
You may think that this is only aimed at tramps and has nothing to do with you, but many highly-respected beers such as Old Tom and Duvel come in at over this figure, and some of the new-wave craft brewers have made a speciality of distinctive, higher-strength beers. The same is even more true of traditional ciders. Many of the products favoured by street drinkers were originally entirely respectable and were only later adopted by them as their tipple of choice – Carlsberg Special was first brewed to mark the visit of Sir Winston Churchill to Copenhagen. And it would be impossible to come up with a watertight legal definition that put Old Tom in one camp and super lagers in the other.
The risk is that responsible drinkers of high-quality strong beers and ciders will find them more and more difficult to get hold of, and that their consumption in general will increasingly be denormalised. This will lead to the disappearance of many excellent, distinctive products and an unwelcome reduction of choice and diversity in the overall market. And it always seems to be beer and cider that are singled out when most wines and all spirits come in at a higher strength and cannot claim to be innocent of involvement in problem drinking.
The development of town-centre housing may lead to fewer pub customers, not more
AN ARGUMENT I’ve often seen advanced, especially in relation to Stockport, is that new residential developments in close proximity to town centres are a way of revitalising their pub trade. On the face of it, this sounds plausible, but in fact it’s another example of the “captive market” fallacy. Being the nearest pub to a large number of homes is no guarantee of success, and indeed one of the most typical patterns of pub closure is of stand-alone pubs in the midst of residential areas, or next to local shopping parades, which will often be the only pub within convenient walking distance for a large number of people. Going directly to the pub from home in the evenings is a far less typical pattern of pubgoing than is often imagined.
While there may be ten thousand people living in Manchester City Centre now, when thirty years ago there were only a few hundred, that is still only the population that would support the handful of pubs in a typical small market town, and in terms of the centre’s overall pub trade is a drop in the ocean. Pubs thrive in the centre of Manchester, and other large cities, because they function as retail, employment, business, cultural and entertainment hubs for a wide surrounding area and thus attract large numbers of people for a wide variety of reasons.
If new flats are built on land on the edge of a town centre that was formerly derelict, or industrial premises, it might give a slight boost to pubs in the vicinity, although probably scarcely so much as you would notice. But if former shops and offices are turned over to housing, it will in fact be bad news for local pubs, as it will signal a retrenchment of the town’s hub function and mean fewer potential pubgoers visiting it from outside.