My marathon ‘pubcrawl’ to licenced premises in Strood and the Hoo Peninsula has come to an end and, with a view to the impression I got of the business in the area, I would like to make a few observations of my own. My first two articles were supposed to be a nostalgic stroll through the Peninsula, remembering the public houses that no longer grace our roads. But such has been the hurricane of change that this turned out to be more of an obituary, painting a very gloomy picture of the present situation, no matter how jaunty I tried to paint the overall scene. Understandably the offices were inundated with stressed calls from local licensees stating nothing had been written of the houses that remain. No apologies for these first articles, as they were unashamedly written as an histoire of the licensed trade in our area as was, and not an arrogant audit of an area I had not been invited into. Bearing in mind the succinct points made by these callers I have since produced articles about our existing pubs.
Now I would like to put forward a view of the licensed trade as it now exists and, perhaps give an indication as to why the current situation has come about.
Of all our remaining public houses those that seem to be doing a brisker trade are those that have extended and developed the catering side of the business. Whereas, only a few years ago a range of sandwiches or the perennial ploughman’s lunch was probably the extent of food a pub would offer, now we come across menus offering fare often the equivalent of any good standard restaurant. This has bought about great changes in those enterprises, in an effort to attract a new and more profitable market. No more jukebox blaring out a vaguely recognised top ten, replaced by a Woganeque treat in the background. The bleeping, flashing fruit machine now secreted away in a less frequented corner. Where once the crew met for a few pints and a game of darts or pool with their mates, the grey brigade sit cosily ensconced in comfortable chairs, the many bar stools replaced by tables. A few well selected lagers, real ales and wines replace popular, mass produced foreign drinks. The message is clear, just selling beers in the traditional manner is no longer a gainful affair. The margin on a pint has been whittled down to pennies while other costs have spiralled. What was once a comfortable living may now offer a living not much more than basic. And though these new type of eating pubs may be comfortable, as the CAMRA poem goes, it’s all very nice but it aint a pub!
As long as licensed properties are yielding a rent and filling the weekly dray, breweries are slow to react to the changing aspect that confronts them. With large brewery sites, increasingly expensive production costs and being responsible for a large workforce, it is not surprising the big breweries are loathe to change. History tells us that the trade has always righted itself after previous wobbles and, ironically, drinking has been known to increase in recessions. The present down-turn in trade may be very different though due to a new ‘monster’ coming over the hill. Up until recently it was the elephant in the room that everyone has tried to ignore but now the truth is obvious: go down to the local supermarket and pay a third of the price for your alcohol. At the AGM of one large brewery twenty minutes was spent discussing their properties, almost an hour on the opening of a new bottling plant. Perhaps the clearest indication as to where this brewery is headed. But as long as breweries can find people to take on their properties, pay a rent, meet all the business rates, energy and upkeep costs in the bar, they are not encouraged to change policy. If a tenant cannot eventually be found then the brewery has a property to sell, sometimes at very eye-catching prices. Perversely the catering trade have been the ones to buy these buildings in the guise of asian or italian restaurants. It must be supposed the cost of converting older public houses into the restaurants they very often become is beyond the purse or imagination of the breweries. But maybe it is better for breweries to stick to the business they know, after all we are all witness to the failure of businesses that have diverted away from the initial core concerns, namely banks and building societies.
So where does all this leave the traditional boozer? As mentioned in previous articles in the Peninsula Times, the landlords and ladies who remain at the helm of our beloved pubs must be among the most enterprising, hard working and determined of all business people. Public houses now offer quiz nights, jams, live entertainment and theme nights than ever before. These are not cheap to put on and very often the eye of the proprietor is on keeping his pub in the scene, gaining custom in the future. In the past the closure of a neighbouring pub would divert drinkers to other locals, but such is the drop in pub drinkers there is no longer the spare custom to attract.
Both local and central government need to realise the place of public houses in our communities. The responsibilities of our local hostellers runs to hiring and training staff, keeping an orderly house both inside and outside the premises and providing a social centre in the locality. All this is bound up in the granted personal licence. Are any other commercial enterprises charged with so many duties outside it’s own domain? Imagine any other business being held partly responsible for the behaviour of their customers once they have left the premises. It is hardly relevant or appropriate though the effects of alcohol must be taken into account. But publicans are more aware of who they are serving, who can drink what, who is drunk and can no longer be served and the age of those coming into their pubs and have to provide staff equal to the task. And when trouble does occur the effects is corralled in that one place, a place that can be located and reached quickly by enforcement agencies. Who is responsible for the cheap booze, easily reached within the fridge at home and drunk in the local parks? At the moment public houses are being called to book, when, with little imagination, we can clearly see where the problems stem from.
So get to it breweries, local and central government. The power is in your hands. Give local people a range of licensed premises that are clean, pleasant, attractive and provide the services that will enhance an area. We, the public, can show our support by using our local pubs and giving the publican a good commercial reason to make his business a warm, cosy and fun place to be. The alternative is a land with very few social outlets in uninviting streets with closed doors.

Adrian Belleville

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