News & views – January 2024


In the last edition I outlined what CAMRA was looking for in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s autumn statement and we were not entirely disappointed.

The 75% discount on business rates for hospitality businesses has been extended until April 2025. The Chancellor also conceded that some long term reform was needed, not just a series of temporary fixes. Hopefully, this will see the end of the current system which unfairly penalises pubs.

The increase in alcohol duty scheduled for February has been cancelled and all alcohol duties will now be frozen, although only until August 2024. Again, this is a temporary fix. CAMRA still wants a system which will help pubs, social clubs and taprooms compete with supermarket prices for beer and cider and encourage people to go to pubs and clubs.

Nothing however was said about lifting the prohibition on pubs (and beer festivals) decanting beer and cider into small containers for home consumption. CAMRA will not let this matter drop. Similarly, nothing was said about reducing VAT for the hospitality sector or providing support with energy costs.
There will be a spring budget on 6 March. It is expected that alcohol duty rates will be reviewed ahead of the end of the freeze in August. Some changes to permitted measures, for example, wine by the pint, have already been announced.

There have been some reports of good sales over Christmas and the New Year but pubs still need help. The British Institute of Innkeeping recently carried out a survey of their 13,000 members and this revealed that, during 2023, 62% of them saw their revenue remain the same or reduce.


Changes to the planning rules have been in the offing for some time now. Proposals by Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government until 2021, came to nothing which, in terms of pub preservation, was probably a relief. Now, just before Christmas, his successor, Michael Gove (as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) announced new proposals and there is some concern that these will take precedence over local councils’ existing pub protection policies.

It is generally illegal for pubs to be converted or demolished without planning permission but the level of enforcement varies considerably. Consequently, in the wake of the Crooked House scandal, CAMRA is lobbying for protection for pubs to be tightened up. Interestingly, the MP for Dudley North, Marco Longhi, is looking to introduce a ‘Crooked House law’, which will make it a duty for all local authorities to maintain registers of heritage pubs and safeguard similar properties.


The finals of the UEFA European Championship take place in Germany in June and July. The Home Office is consulting on allowing extended pub opening hours for specific games, including the semi-finals and final. UKHospitality believes that major sporting events can provide a much needed boost in revenue and that extended hours are essential to allow venues and fans to take full advantage. It is understood however that the extended hours will only apply to games in which England and Scotland are playing.


The minimum pricing of alcohol still has its supporters in England, so it is worth noting what is happening in Scotland, where it was introduced in 2018. The legislation expires in April this year and it has been proposed that it be continued but with the minimum unit price (MUP) being raised from 50p to 65p. Inflation has had an effect and research carried out by the University of Sheffield has calculated that the 50p unit in 2018 is now equivalent to 41p. At one point an 80p MUP had been suggested but the Scottish Government accepted that a ‘reasonable balance’ had to be struck between health benefits and the effects on business. Public Health Scotland reported that they had calculated that there were 13.4% fewer alcohol-related deaths than would have happened without the policy and 4.1% fewer hospital admissions. It was however observed that alcohol consumption had increased during the pandemic and this had reduced the health benefits.


Cask Marque, now 25 years old, have made a substantial change to the requirements for obtaining their accreditation. On the basis that a clean and organised cellar will produce good quality beer, they are now also inspecting pub cellars and giving them a star rating, with five being the top score. This is similar to the food hygiene assessments to which pubs serving food are already subject. Cellars must achieve at least a four star rating to achieve a Cask Marque award. Pubs with a five star rating will be given a window sticker to display the achievement. There is an eleven point check list for the inspections, including cellar temperature, stock rotation, clean beer lines and the cleanliness of glass washing machines. This started on 1 January and CM are aiming to inspect some 8,000 cellars in the course of this year. One of the first pub companies to participate is J D Wetherspoon. Others appear to be withdrawing from the scheme. You can check a pub’s score by using the CaskFinder ‘app’.


The Burton Union system for fermenting beer was, as its name suggests, originally unique to Burton on Trent. It was introduced in the 1830s and its primary users were Bass for brewing Draught Bass. Bass stopped using them in the 1980s but a section of a union set was preserved outside the National Brewing Museum. I don’t however know what happened to it when the museum closed last year.

Marston’s had some smaller sets at their Albion Brewery in Shobnall Road and continued to use them to brew Pedigree (4.5% ABV). The beer produced was however blended with conventionally brewed Pedigree and this product was supplied mostly to the local trade. Sadly, the Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company have now announced that they will be discontinuing their use. CMBC say that they are no longer viable because of ‘low volumes due to the decline in the UK cask market’. Marston’s have four union sets and have promised to preserve two of them, saying, “We are committed to protecting the legacy of the Union sets, both for the brewery and for Burton. We will invest in preserving two Union sets which will remain at the brewery so they can continue to be part of its future as enduring, iconic symbols of British brewing.” It isn’t clear as to what arrangements Marston’s will make for the preserved sets to be seen as their visitor centre closed during the pandemic and has not reopened. Any information on this point will be appreciated. I suspect that they would be too large to be relocated to the proposed new national brewing museum.

The union sets consist of a row of oak casks connected by pipes at the side and with troughs top and bottom, through which the fermenting beer flows and excess yeast is collected. I am fortunate enough to have seen the Bass sets in use shortly before they were broken up and it was a magnificent sight. It is sad to see the end of this era in our brewing history. It is difficult to describe the workings of the system in the space available here and I would urge readers who are interested to do their own research.
Ironically, Marston’s are currently brewing Draught Bass for AB InBev under licence although this did not go through the union system. At least one brewery in the USA created its own version of the union system.


The former Duke of St Albans in Highgate, which dates from 1859, closed in 2008 firstly for conversion to a restaurant and then to a wine bar. The wine bar closed last April. The owners of the site have now made an application to Camden council for a full variation of the premises licence, including the removal of the requirement for table service, to allow it to operate as a normal public house again. They say that there is a strong demand locally for a classic ‘muddy-boots/traditional pub’. The mud however is more likely to come from dog walking on Hampstead Heath than a building site. It was reported in the local paper, the Ham & High, that established pub operators, the Grace Land Group, are being lined up to run it. There have been some objections as regards the proposed opening times but there is support from local traders and politicians.

The Stonegate owned Princess Alexandra in Crouch End closed just after the New Year. Stonegate describe the pub, which dates from the 1900s, as ‘a lovely suburban pub nestled between the affluent areas of Muswell Hill and Crouch End. This is a great pub which has everything to allow it to become the heart of the local community’. The Princess Alexandra is one of eight north London pubs for which Stonegate are seeking tenants.

Stonegate is the largest of the pub owning businesses and it is reported that its owners, TDR Capital, who also own the ASDA supermarket chain, are seeking to refinance a debt of £2.6 billion. The GMB Union have expressed concern that this could see pubs being sold off but a spokesman for Stonegate said, “Our pub business remains very resilient despite the challenges our industry faces, with good like-for-like sales growth across the group and we are very confident in our ability to refinance at the appropriate time.”

Stonegate have however announced that they are closing the only pub in East Barnet village, the Prince of Wales. Despite a refurbishment costing £290,000 in 2022, Stonegate say it will close in February, telling the Barnet Society that there were ‘no plans to re-open it as licensed premises and the process of selling the property had already begun’. The pub has a large car park, so the site may attract developers.