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Last Updated: Friday, 21 February 2003, 08:39 GMT
Pub industry faces blurred future
By Laura Cummings
BBC News Online business reporter

Dwindling visits to village locals coupled with a slowing of the High Street pub boom are taking their toll on the pub industry. "Use them or lose them," says the Campaign for Real Ale as it launches National Pubs Week.

Maggie Dale has been the landlady of the Prince of Wales pub in Shere, Surrey, for six years.

This village local, in the picturesque North Downs, is popular with tourists as well as villagers.

"We get a lot of people coming out from London to the country," Ms Dale tells BBC News Online.

But she says her business has been "greatly affected" by competition from High Street chains, which can offer drinks and particularly food at more competitive prices.

Maggie runs the pub with her partner Darren

The Prince of Wales' nearest rival is run by the industry giant Scottish & Newcastle under its Chef & Brewer chain.

"They're more just like a food operation," Ms Dale adds.

"They can take 25,000 a week more than I do."

Drinking habits

It is not just competition from larger pub chains that is affecting the industry.

The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) says 20 pubs are forced to close each month because of dwindling visitors.

27% of the UK never visit pubs
20% of 18-24 year olds never visit pubs
41% of 55+ year olds never visit pubs
Source: Camra

The group's survey of British pub-goers suggested 27% of the nation now never visit a pub, as much because habits have changed as because of competition from more fashionable bars.

And even these so-called trendy outlets are suffering, as the economic slowdown and ongoing uncertainty takes its toll, particularly in London.

Peter Biddle is the landlord at the Counting House, a pub in the heart of London's financial district.

"Business has dropped dramatically," he said

"Since Christmas we really haven't recovered.

The people
Quality Food
Friendly staff
Source: Camra

"People were cancelling Christmas parties and booking redundancy do's."

Profit falls at industry stalwarts such as Wetherspoons and SFI over the past few months have also exposed the High Street woes.

Continental approach

Upcoming changes to the pub licensing bill could solve a few headaches for the industry, although many say reform is long overdue.

The changes proposed by the government will allow pubs to apply for licences to stay open for longer - for as long as 24 hours if the licence is approved, although a more likely scenario is an extension to midnight or 2am.

"To begin with, it's going to be incredibly novel and people will abuse it," said Ms Dale.

"But it's definitely going to help with the tourists and with the trend that people are now starting to eat later.

"We quite often get people coming in at 10 pm. wanting a meal - we should wake up to the European Community, be a bit more bistro or cafe-like."

Cashing in

The introduction of the changes, however, has been far from smooth.
Gerry O'Brian
No music, all chatter says Mr O'Brian

The bill is currently in the House of Lords and has seen over 400 amendments since it was drafted at the end of 2002.

"There are lots of arguments where it is difficult for the industry to put its view across," says Brigid Simmons, chief executive of the trade body Business in Sport and Leisure.

The main gripes centre around the fact that the granting of licences will pass from magistrates to local authorities.

This has led to concerns that the authorities will be influenced by their political agenda and will seek to cash in on new individual licences.

This place is my home, my life
Gerry O'Brian
The Churchill Arms

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) says: "Local authorities want to make decisions in their own right - which means they could charge what they like."

There are also widely differing views on when the bill will become reality - local authorities are suggesting a three or four year "phasing-in" stage, whereas the pub industry wants it over in a year.

Pubs for life

The Churchill Arms in London is one pub which so far appears immune to any slowdown.

The Churchill Arms in Kensington

The pub's Winston Churchill memorabilia, chamber-pot collection on the ceiling and thriving Thai food business have kept it popular with locals and tourists.

However, even the landlord Jerry O'Brian has concerns about the new bill.

"The local authorities will be able to decide what they want. I'm not happy with that."

Mr O'Brian's pub has been the Fullers brewery's top performing pub for the last 10 years.

He believes the trend away from local pubs towards High Street chains has come full circle.

"I think brewers made a big mistake - these pubs aren't really real.

"This place is my home, my life. The great pub tradition - it's not just a place for drinking, but also for chatting."

With its cricket team, rugby events, Churchill nights and St Patrick's Day celebrations on the way, it's a pub Camra wants others to emulate.

"We have no music, it's all chatter," says Mr O'Brian. "You've got to encourage people to talk."

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