The great pubs crisis
in order to kick start the pub trade?
The plight of the pub is not confined to those who work in the trade or write about it. Last week I did 20 back-to-back radio interviews to coincide with the launch of the 2009 edition of the Good Beer Guide and a lively debate ensued over just how the much-loved British boozer can be saved from extinction.
The media had picked up with relish the guide's attack on supermarket discounts that are killing pub business. Even I was dumbstruck by research that shows that while pub prices have increased by 4% in the past year they have fallen by 1% in the off-trade.
Since 2002, off-trade beer prices have been cut by 7% while pub prices have increased by a whopping 24%. Want to know why 36 pubs are pulling down the shutters every week? Just look at those figures once more.
In most of the radio slots last week, either the interviewers or listeners responded by asking: “OK, what can pubs do to revive their fortunes and get punters through the doors again?”
My thoughts were as follows: publicans need to be imaginative. Hold regular mini beer festivals, featuring beers rare to your areas. Stage auctions, charity events and celebrations to mark Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas, New Year and Hurricane Darling on Budget Day.
Above all, make sure your cask beer is sold in tip-top condition: if you've never sold cask ale before, Cask Marque will be delighted to give you a helping hand. Sell food if you can, keep it simple and at affordable prices, and avoid becoming a gastropub.
The advice struck a chord with most listeners. But over and over again the message came back that it was the smoking ban as much as supermarket discounts that were killing the pub trade.
The debate went on. The head office of the Campaign for Real Ale, publishers of the Good Beer Guide, tell me they have never received such a response to either the launch of the book or any other Camra event.
Emails were passed on to me. Some were fairly abusive -- “Don't tell me to stop buying beer in supermarkets. I don't care about pubs and you can all bugger off” was one memorable missive – but most were not only serious and sensitive but returned to the subject of the smoking ban.
I was struck in particular by an email from a British citizen resident in Spain. He is a smoker and enjoys a beer. He said he had just fired up a ciggie while enjoying a glass of Shepherd Neame's Spitfire – the lads from Faversham will be delighted to hear that their beer is reaching Barcelona and points south.
My informant said that while supermarket beer in Spain was just as cheap as in Britain, he still used bars because he was able to smoke in them.
Like a Biblical sinner, I have repented. I initially welcomed the blanket ban on smoking in pubs. I disagreed with the Camra view that pubs with more than one room should be allowed to set aside an area for smokers for an agreed number of years.
My feeling was that smoking – unlike drinking in moderation – is such a danger to the health of both the smoker and those inhaling his or her fumes that the habit should be stamped on from a very great height.
But I recognise now that the effects of the ban have been a disaster for most pubs. I love the smoke-free atmosphere. I can enjoy a pint with greater relish and I don't go home reeking of stale smoke and with a sore throat.
I'm the worst kind of non-smoker – a reformed, ex-nicotine user. But I've noticed on two visits to Belgium this year that my enjoyment of beer there has not been impeded by the fact that bars are allowed to set aside a room for smokers. The same applies in France and Italy. All three countries, in common with Britain, have a ban on smoking in public places, but they have adopted a policy of allowing bars and cafes to set aside rooms for those still addicted to the awful weed.
It's a fact that while smoking is in sharp decline in Britain, a bigger proportion of pubgoers are smokers than is typical of the population at large. I think they should be encouraged to give up but to make them sit outside pubs in segregated areas is a kind of social apartheid.
What should have happened is that the pub trade and the government should have agreed on a time scale that would have allowed smoking inside pubs in designated areas for a period of, say, five years.
Pub owners would have had to ensure that neither smoke nor the smell of smoking could seep from those areas into the rest of the pub. It would have been considerably cheaper than the millions spent on outside patios.
None of this should take the spotlight off the greed and avarice of the supermarkets and their give-away beer prices. But the smoking ban needs to be addressed. It would be a brave person that asks the government to rethink its policy. But as I got it wrong the first time round I'd be happy to write the first letter.
As long as it doesn't have to go to Alistair Darling.
*Good Beer Guide 2009 £14.99 in bookshops or online from www.camra.org.uk