News and views – May 2020

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

So, when will our pubs be allowed to reopen? In his address to the Nation on 10 May, the Prime Minister indicated that we would have to wait until his next announcement on 4 July for any progress. The Government has however given a hint, as mentioned below.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the decision to allow the reopening of our pubs is not an easy one, involving, as it does, finding a balance between keeping people free from a deadly disease and not letting the economy fail to a degree whereby it may cause almost as much misery. It seems implausible that pubs could reopen so long as those inside, both customers and staff, are required to keep a two metre gap between each other. There is some argument that pubs with large outside areas (which will usually be covered by their licence), could be used. This, presumably, would involve table service and no access to the interior of the pub. Arrangements would need to be made about such practicalities as making payment and using toilets. Most pubs will, of course, need time to prepare for opening. The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) estimated that pubs would need three weeks at least. Pubs offering food would probably need a deep clean of their kitchens at least. Wet led pubs might make it sooner, if they could source any beer, of course.

That said, premature reopening could be hugely counter-productive. Once pubs are open again, the Government will withdraw all support, pub owners will want the rent paid – including amounts deferred – and loans will become repayable. I suspect however that the majority of people would simply not visit them until they felt it was safe. Consequently, pubs will not be receiving anywhere near sufficient income to cope.

I know that there is a lobby calling for the immediate reopening of pubs and that its supporters will vehemently disagree with what I say here, but my concern is that, if pubs reopen now, all that happens is that the problem is moved down the line and we will see a wave of pub closures this time next year. I’m sure that none of us want to see staff return to work from being furloughed only to be made redundant within weeks. A good Christmas and New Year will be vital for many pubs so if ‘lockdown’ had to be reintroduced because of a ‘second wave’ of infections, that would help no-one.

There was also a mention of a limit of three pints per visit on reopening. That would not help and I wonder if the anti-alcohol lobby is trying to take an advantage here which is out of context with the situation. I assume that we cannot take three pints a day to be a change to the recommended daily limit.

Long term, I hate to be a misery but given the deficit that the Government will have to fund in the coming years, I suspect that reductions in beer duty and other taxes on alcohol may not be forthcoming; possibly quite the opposite. One way or another, the cost of a pint might rise substantially.

HELP IS ON THE WAY

14 May saw the release of the ‘UK Government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy’. This said that, as part of the plan’s third and final stage, ‘at least some’ pubs and hospitality venues will open but no earlier than 4 July. The Government also announced that it was creating five ‘task forces’ each led by a minister, to plan the safe reopening of various parts of the economy. There will be one specifically for pubs and restaurants, run by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Its creation was welcomed by the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), the representative body for the pub owning businesses, who said that they were already working very closely with BEIS on the support pubs and brewers need through this crisis and looked forward to continuing this relationship. According to the Catalyst magazine, the BBPA said that it could even ‘provide pubs for pilot testing of new COVID-19 secure guidelines’.

The task force announcement was also welcomed by CAMRA’s national chairman Nik Antona, “Pubs are a key part of our social fabric and it is vital that people can safely support them when they reopen so that they can weather the difficult weeks and months ahead. It’s clear that some types of pubs won’t be able to open and operate successfully with social distancing measures, and we want the Government to pay particular attention to how they can support those pubs to ensure their future survival. Pubs will require ongoing financial support both during lockdown and after restrictions lift, and we look forward to working with the task force to ensure clarity and support is outlined in every step of the process.” CAMRA and the BBPA may, of course, not necessarily share the same ideas here.

PUBS CODE ADJUDICATOR

Fiona Dickie took over as PCA as scheduled on 4 May. She posted an introduction on the Government website in which she said, “I step up to become the PCA at a time when the pubs sector faces an unparalleled threat from COVID-19 and the livelihoods of tied tenants are on the line. It is vital that my focus is on upholding the principles of the Pubs Code through this emergency. It is now more important than ever that tenants have the benefit of their statutory rights and protections, and that the regulated pub-owning businesses (POBs) are adhering to the Pubs Code principles of fairness and transparency. Directors of all the POBs regulated by the PCA have signed a declaration which stops the clock on many important Code rights. These arrangements ensure that these rights are preserved and protected, but do not stop any tenant from taking any available Code step to access their rights.” Encouragingly, she added, “I am expecting POBs to make themselves accountable for how they are supporting, and can support, their tenants to ensure they survive the outbreak, by being transparent and fair about their approaches.”

I should add that still nothing has been seen as regards the outcome of the review into the PCA but, in fairness, there is a lot going on.

BEER DUTY PETITION

In April, a petition to Parliamentary was started as follows: Cut beer duty for at least 12 months, so pubs can survive after the covid virus. Help pubs rebuild their business by cutting beer duty for at least a year, so that the price of a pint can be dropped therefore getting more people in through the door. The government are the ones that control the amount of tax on beer, nobody else can do it.’

I’m sure that the first instinct of many members would be to agree with it but the issue of beer duty isn’t that simple. Beer duty is paid by brewers as and when they release beer into the trade. Except for the relatively few pubs that buy their beer direct from small brewers, the saving would go to the wrong people. What would help is a specific reduction on the duty paid on draught beer sold in pubs. Beer duty was, incidentally, frozen for 2020/21 in the budget.

An equally pressing issue for pubs is business rates. Although the Government put in some temporary fixes in the budget and has since cancelled business rates completely for this year, the system still needs drastic reform, hopefully before it returns for 2021/22. There have also been proposals over the years for a reduction in VAT for the hospitality industry. That would benefit pubs directly but reductions in any form of taxation are unlikely over the next few years.

THE LONDON PLAN

Firstly, an apology; in the February/March edition I said that I would report further as to the progress of the above in the April/May one. Alas, I forgot to carry forward the reference. As it happens, a significant but unwelcome event occurred soon after the deadline. The Plan has to be approved by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government before it can be published and this approval was refused. In a letter to the Mayor of London dated 13 March, the Secretary of State (Robert Jenrick) said, “Due to the number of the inconsistencies with national policy and missed opportunities to increase housing delivery, I am exercising my powers under section 337 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to direct that you cannot publish the London Plan until you have incorporated the Directions I have set out at Annex 1. Should you consider alternative changes to policy to address my concerns, I am also content to consider these.” The full letter is in the public domain here.

Our interest, of course, is in the section that covers the preservation of pubs – Policy HC7. Apart from a mention of the Heathrow development, the area of contention is the provision of housing. There is, of course, a cross-over here with pub protection but pubs are not specifically mentioned. Geoff Strawbridge, CAMRA’s Regional Director for Greater London, has taken the lead here and commented, “We would hate to see Policy HC7 kicked into the long grass after all the effort that went into it from all quarters.” Geoff is in contact with the Greater London Authority accordingly.

THE TAKEAWAY OPTION

Just to clarify what was said in the last edition, the significance of pubs having their own planning category, A4, is that there are no ‘permitted development rights’ (PDR) attached to that class and changes of use, conversion works and demolition require full planning permission. This is not so with properties in classes A5 (takeaway food), A3 (café), A2 (office), A1 (shop) or C3 (dwelling house). There was initially some concern that any pubs that opted to serve take-away food would be automatically reclassified as A5 and thus be at risk. Happily this is not so. CAMRA’s campaigns staff queried this with their contacts at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government who replied within 24 hours to confirm that in these circumstances pubs would go into a new, temporary planning class (DA) which carries no PDRs and will revert to A4 in due course. If, however, any readers are suspicious of anything happening to a local pub, especially it being relabelled as a takeaway when it clearly isn’t operating as such, please do let us know on ldnews.hedger@gmail.com.

HORSES FOR COURSES

Samuel Smith’s have joined the ranks of those breweries making home deliveries. They are however doing it in style by using their horse drawn drays around their home town of Tadcaster. The brewery manager, Simon Crook, who has been doing some of the deliveries himself, told the Independent that as well as keeping the business turning over, it was keeping the horses fit and the sight of them cheered up the residents.

ON THE ROAD

A crisis does bring out the best in some people and possibly the worse in others. The Hatfield House bar in Belfast was already running a hot meals delivery service and streaming live music every Friday and Saturday night when manager Richard Keenan decided to go one better. He fitted beer pumps in the back of some vans, connected them to kegs of Guinness, and started delivering draught beer. Customers had to order by ‘phone and pay by card (with no delivery charge) and then, in due course, there would be a knock on the door and a freshly poured pint of the Black Stuff would be waiting on their doorstep. Mr Keenan told the Irish News that his service was helping to keep staff in jobs and ensure that customers stayed indoors, adding, “The whole ethos is bringing the pub to you.” The staff were fully equipped with personal protection equipment. Unfortunately, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) decided that the service was illegal. Mr Keenan told the Belfast Telegraph, “Our lawyers have advised us that we are in strict compliance with all relevant current legislation. However, despite all of this, the PSNI have sought to wrongly shut down the Guinness pint delivery service. We have asked the PSNI on numerous occasions to outline which relevant piece of legislation we are alleged to have breached but to date they haven’t been able to do this.” Sadly, after the PSNI took to following his vans in unmarked cars, Mr Keenan felt pressured into abandoning the service.

Stop press: it is understood that the PSNI’s objection is that the pub’s licence does not cover a moving vehicle.

MUNICH CRISIS

The Oktoberfest, probably the best known beer festival in the world (although not perhaps the best. . .), was called off as early as 20 April. It was scheduled to run from 19 September to 4 October. Some six million customers had been expected.

AND FINALLY…

I saw this message on Facebook: ‘Anyone thinking of taking part in ‘Sober in October’ or ‘Dry January’, please can you do it now – sincerely, the pub’.

Tony Hedger

Please note: we have mentioned a number of beer takeaway and delivery services in this edition. This is for information only. A mention in this magazine does imply any recommendation and should you have any complaints, please take them up direct with the supplier concerned. London Drinker has no commercial connection with any of these companies.