Inside Track by Peter Martin
It has been another poor week for the public image of the pub. The announcement on Friday from the Home Office that over half the pubs targeted over the summer in a crackdown on underage drinking sold alcohol to under-18s would have come as no surprise. The figures had been widely flagged back in August, but that didn’t stop Home Office minister Hazel Blears taking the opportunity again last week to say she was "taken aback" by the results, and that "there is a significant problem and it is greater than I anticipated." Under-age drinking is complex issue, but this development only gives the press, the police, the “something must been done brigade” and both local and national government more opportunities to whip the pub trade. The fact that only 191 pubs and bars were involved in the police “sting” operations won’t stop people drawing the conclusion that half of all pubs now sell booze to children. It looks like another case of the pub industry being unable to control it’s own PR. One of the real problems is that the findings pull the rug from under the pub market’s argument that it is the supermarkets where the problem of under-age alcohol availability actually lies. Unfortunately, only 32% of off-licences in the survey were found to sell to under-18s. Evidence like this is only going to make it tougher for pubs and bars to win more trading flexibility, whether under the old or new licensing regimes. The industry has to ask itself whether it could have done more to predict and avoid this situation? It has a reputation for being too conservative, too reactive, even complacent on the big threats. Will we now see another initiative like last week’s “big five” smoking proposals? It is clear that under-age drinking is not just an industry problem. The fact is that it is widely accepted by large swathes of the population as something everyone does and has done for as long as anyone can remember. Double standards abound in this area. Unfortunately, that is not the point. If it can be used to beat the business, it will be, and that is what needs to be guarded against. The answer for many operators will be to get out of the drinks-led business. The high street isn’t going to get any easier to trade in. There is simply an over supply of pubs and bars. What does still work on the high street is restaurants. Councils also like them. Sell up or convert might be the best advice, unless operators are going to invest more in public protection and public image.