Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 1999
* More Can Mean Less *
Reports in the press indicate that it's almost certain that the government will introduce a dramatic liberalisation of licensing hours, with pubs allowed to stay open well past midnight unless there is a clear local nuisance. It's difficult to argue against this unless you're part of the old-fashioned anti-drink lobby, but nobody should be under any illusions that it will do much to revitalise the pub trade. There's a good case for midnight closing on Fridays and Saturdays, but beyond that, extended hours will only be relevant to a minority of young, urban pubgoers. Staying open into the small hours won't in practice increase alcohol consumption, but it will push up costs by spreading the existing trade over a longer period of time, just as all-day opening has done, and therefore inevitably lead to higher prices.
The big pub chains with their rosters of hourly-paid part-time staff will be able to take longer hours in their stride, but what will be the impact on the small tenanted pub? Currently, licensees who close at 11 pm probably never get to bed before 1 am, because there's plenty of work to be done after the doors shut. They then just about get time for a decent night's sleep before they have to get up and prepare for opening the next morning. In the new deregulated world, they will probably have to stay open later to avoid losing trade to the big boys, but they won't sell any more drink in total, and their lives will be made much more unpleasant. Longer opening hours will lead to a further decline in individual, owner-managed pubs in favour of characterless national chain outlets.
In all the countries of Continental Europe closest to us - Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France - beer duty is much lower and opening hours much more liberal. But, compared with the UK, in all these countries bar prices are higher, the differential between on and off-trade prices is far greater, and the proportion of beer drunk at home is much higher. That is the direction we are heading in, and greatly extended licensing hours, far from boosting the pub trade, will accelerate the process.
* Bringing the Morning After Nearer *
Another potential effect of pubs staying open into the small hours which nobody seems to have mentioned is an upsurge in "morning after" drink-driving. If you drink four or five pints and finish at 11 pm, you'll almost certainly be well under the legal limit by the time you come to drive to work the following morning. If you drink the same amount, but don't finish until 1 or 2 am, there's every chance you won't be, and you won't have had a proper night's sleep either. This is a subject on which the government - in my view irresponsibly - keep very quiet, possibly because they fear it will complicate their message on the general dangers of drink-driving. But if many more people are regularly drinking into the small hours, even if in total they are drinking no more, the authorities will no longer be able to ignore the issue.
Public transport, apart from late-night buses in a few big cities, normally finishes around the current closing time. If pubs are open until 2 am, will buses and trains still be running to take their customers home in places like Macclesfield and Northwich? Somehow I don't think so. At least it will be easier to get a cab home from the pub as everybody won't want one all at once.