Introduction to Feb/March 2021 edition

Welcome to the first London Drinker of 2021. I was originally going to say ‘Let’s hope that 2021 is a better year than 2020, which will not be difficult’ but 2021 has not started well.  When the last edition was published, we were in Tier 2.  On 16 December, to no great surprise, London was moved into Tier 3 and then, four days later, into the newly created Tier 4. Now, as from 6 January, we are in the third national lockdown and the Mayor of London has declared a ‘major incident’ in the capital.

The Legal bit

We are currently subject to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 3) and (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021. These are effectively just a set of amendments to the two previous sets which respectively ended the second lockdown and introduced Tier 4.  The Tier 4 regulations had a termination date of 2 February and this has been amended to 31 March. Sadly, an extension looks inevitable and one report that I have seen suggested this might be to the early May Bank Holiday.  Only time and events will tell. 

The Tier 4 regulations were not debated in Parliament because it was in recess and those for the third lockdown were only debated the day after they came into effect.  I have seen some suggestions that this means that they are not enforceable. Not so.  They were made under the terms of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 which permits the Secretary of State, ‘if he is of the opinion that it is necessary by reason of urgency’, to make a Statutory Instrument ‘without a draft having been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament’.

Pubs and Takeaways

The third Lockdown saw history almost but not quite repeating itself.  When the draft regulations for the third lockdown were published, once again pubs were prohibited from selling takeaway alcohol. Sale of alcohol by delivery was permitted but this is, of course, not practical for most pubs. Once again, CAMRA members and other pub-goers lobbied their MPs to have this overturned and the issue was raised in the House of Commons.  This time however we did not succeed.  The Government’s stance here was a reaction to coverage in both the television news and the national newspapers of people congregating outside pubs drinking beer from open pint glasses which they had just purchased.  I witnessed this behaviour myself outside a pub near where I live.  One of my friends told me that pub crawls were organised on social media over Christmas and New Year.  There is an argument that the earlier regulations were inadequately worded in that they did not specify sales in sealed containers for consumption at home, as has recently been enacted in Scotland. Likewise, the police could have imposed street alcohol bans but, fundamentally, both customers and publicans must have known that what they were doing was against the purpose, if not the word, of the regulations. Yes, of course it was only a minority; it always is. They however are the ones who get noticed and lead to us all being stereotyped.  We need to remember that the majority of people don’t use pubs and that they form their opinion of them from the mainstream press which, of course, mostly only print negative stories. That said, a general ban rather than policing individual offenders does have a hint of collective punishment about it, which is a practice that I’m sure that the Government would not normally engage in.

As much as the Government may have a point about the misuse of the takeaway provision by a small number of pubs, there is an ‘elephant in the room’ in the shape of the supermarkets. How can it be fair to the vast majority of compliant pubs to allow supermarkets to continue to sell alcohol unchecked?  As Nik Antona, CAMRA’s National

Chairman, commented, “The least the Government can do is take a sensible approach, think again and allow community pubs to sell takeaway products. No-one wants to see drinking in the streets during a lockdown but allowing pubs to sell alcohol in sealed containers for people to take home, just like shops do, would be completely reasonable.  Without a change in these lockdown laws we risk seeing more locals going to the wall, traditional British cask ale under threat and people being forced into supermarkets instead of being allowed to support local businesses by buying beer from the pub to take home.”  I was, I would add, puzzled by the Government’s comment that ‘pubs shouldn’t seek to act as off licences’. If they hold an off licence then that’s what they are and they are having a specific legal right curtailed.

Brewery off-sales

Just to clarify the situation here, breweries and brewery taps selling alcohol both by delivery and directly on site can continue to trade, so long as they have the appropriate licence.  The regulations that applied under Tier 4 and which listed businesses that could stay open still apply as follows: ‘(a) food retailers, including food markets, supermarkets, convenience stores and corner shops’ and ‘(b) off licences and licensed shops selling alcohol (including breweries)’. It is interesting that brewery shops here have parity with supermarkets, unlike pubs.  The downside of that is they are not being classed a part of the hospitality sector and are thus not eligible for certain grants.

#Pubmatter

This campaign was set up by CAMRA in association with a number of trade bodies including the British Institute of

Innkeeping (BII) and the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA). CAMRA is, of course, a consumer organisation and not, as such, a trade body but here we have common cause.  Across the UK, pubs, taprooms and social clubs are at the centre of their communities, raising money for charity and helping ease loneliness and social isolation. The aim of the campaign is simply to publicise the importance of pubs.  There has never been a more crucial time to send a clear message to politicians and the media that pubs matter.   #PubsMatter ran originally from 13 to 16 December when

CAMRA members and other supporters, given that we were approaching a festive season very different from normal, were asked to fill social media and MPs’ inboxes with messages telling them why pubs matter. This will be repeated as and when needed.   One supporter who strongly endorsed the campaign is Duncan Sambrook, the founder of Sambrook’s Brewery, now in Wandsworth.  Duncan kindly gave me permission to repeat his message, “As many of you will know, I am a huge fan of the Great British pub. Since first sampling a pint of Budweiser (yes I am ashamed to say it) with my mate Glen I have been hooked on the places.  Each pub is so quintessentially different but yet uniquely the same. They are places to relax, have fun with friends or watch the world go by.  I have come up with many a mad plan in a pub, most notably the mad plan to set up Sambrook’s brewery and with friends I have enjoyed setting the world to rights over a beer or two and watching many rugby matches.  So it is with sadness that I look on what the government is doing to this most wonderful of industries. These last nine months have been nothing more than the systematic dismantling of the pub sector, which has been unfairly singled out in the coronavirus response.  Optimistic observers say we will probably lose 25% of our pubs next year, this following a period of decline where we have already lost 25% since 2001. To think that we would have lost so many small businesses and community hubs in such a short time is just unthinkable. So the industry are coming together to try to raise the plight of the pub in a campaign called Pubs Matter’. You can find out more about the campaign at https://whypubsmatter.org.uk/.

Looking to the future

What follows is a personal view only and one which, I acknowledge, many of you might consider to be unrealistic. I believe that our cherished ‘wet led’ pubs will survive. I am sure that demand for them will return, although it might take a year at the very least. Here we need to draw the distinction between the pub as a business and the pub as a building.  Very sadly, and through no fault of those concerned, many pub businesses will fail, probably in the middle months of 2021 when debts which have been ‘kicked down the road’ like the proverbial can have to be settled.  At the same time, there will be people who want to join or return to the trade and small pub chains and breweries who wish to expand. There need to be pubs available for them to do so.  It is very likely, unfortunately, that there will be even more opportunistic attempts than usual to redevelop pubs.  Some pub owning companies may actually need the cash. Either way, we must be more proactive than ever in challenging such plans.  Although the protection for pubs under the current planning legislation is arguably as good as it has ever been, it is not perfect and, in many ways, is loaded in favour of developers.  For example, if a local authority refuses a planning application, the developer can appeal to the

Planning Inspectorate and if the inspector supports the refusal, they can go to what is called the Second Tier Tribunal.

If they are still refused, they can, in theory, carry on right up to the Supreme Court. If the application is approved however, objectors have no right of appeal.  All that is open to them is a judicial review, an expensive and complicated process which can only be used to challenge points of law and, crucially, not the merits of a proposal.  To paraphrase an expression usually (but arguably) attributed to Thomas Jefferson, ‘eternal vigilance is the price of keeping our pubs’.

And finally…

Two random thoughts: firstly, by way of an example, spare a thought for the publicans of Herefordshire who having started in Tier 2, had just eleven days in Tier 1, 15 days back in Tier 2, then went into Tier 3 and were almost immediately locked down again. How can you run a business in those circumstances?

Secondly, the Isles of Scilly deserve a mention for going straight from Tier 1 to lockdown. For a while, their ten pubs were the only ones open in England.  Although at present Tier 1 might look like nirvana, let’s not forget that Tier 1 restrictions, with the rule of six, table service and no drinks after 10pm, are still bad enough.  We need to be wary of any attempt to leave these particular rules in force once other COVID restrictions are lifted.

I’m sure that readers will appreciate why there are currently no printed copies of London Drinker available. The production team would however like to assure you that we will return to a printed version as soon as circumstances permit.  This may however not be for some time yet. . .