Inside Track by Mark Hastings
So where were you when the world ended last year? What do you mean you missed it? Don't worry - you weren't the only one. The prophets of doom who flooded the airwaves and newspapers with portents of mayhem because of new licensing laws have proved to be considerably less reliable as soothsayers than Mystic Meg. Their well rehearsed mantra one year later is that its all a bit to early to say whether licensing change has been a success or not - conveniently overlooking the fact that their wild-eyed predictions have proved wildly inaccurate. Well they're right on one thing. We are only one year in. We are trying to turn around decades, if not centuries, of embedded drinking behaviour. That is the supertanker of all supertanker trends, so it is early days. Altering course, let alone turning around will take time. However, after one Christmas, a New Year, a World Cup and a long hot summer, the licensing regime has sat and passed quite a few tough exams over the last 12 months. The industry has good reason for quiet satisfaction that one year in the signs are encouraging. What we are seeing is a measured response to change and some early signals of an evolution in behaviour. In stark contrast to those predictions that people would be flocking to pubs and chucking booze down their necks for 24 hours at time, a YouGov Poll for the British Beer & Pub Association shows that licensing law change has not encouraged people to go to the pub more, neither has it resulted in pub goers drinking much later into the evening. According to the poll, 85% of pub goers say the licensing change has made no difference to how often they go out - and when they do, 71% say they tended to go out at the same time, and return home at the same time as they did prior to the changes. In terms of how frequently people go to bars, 44% of pub customers say they go out less than once a week, 24% once a week, 19% twice a week, with only 11% going out more frequently. The survey highlights some subtle changes in drinking patterns and behaviour that are beginning to emerge as a result of changing pub hours. More than one in five pub goers (23%) are now more likely to stay in a favoured local pub in the evening, rather than going into a town centre, late-night bar. In the younger 18-29 year age group, this trend is even more pronounced, with 36% saying they were now more likely to stay local. The findings also reveal that overall, 21% say they now feel under less pressure to drink quickly as a result of the change - a change identified by more than a quarter of men, 16% of women, and more than a quarter of 18 to 29 year olds. The last orders rush, and drinking against the clock, were widely recognised to be among the main problems of the old regime. A significant number of younger drinkers now say they are more likely to go out later and stay out later - this is true for 14% of 18-24 year-olds and 11% of 25-34 year-olds. The survey shows that in contrast to the apocalyptic predictions of the doom and gloom merchants, the change in our licensing laws has not unleashed a free for all. Just as the pub trade has responded responsibly to reform, so people are behaving reasonably and rationally as it beds down. There has been no dramatic upswing in the amount we go out or how long we spend out. What is most encouraging from the survey is what it has revealed about changes in some underlying patterns of socialising and pub going that have started to evolve - people feeling under less pressure to drink rapidly, staying local rather than rushing into town centres for a late night drink and starting to go out a bit later in the evening. These evolving trends are all taking pressure and pinch points out of the typical night out and helping make it a more leisurely, relaxed and pleasurable experience. 24-hour pubs and drinking remain one of the great urban myths - what we are seeing is an extension of choice for adults and people are responding to that choice positively. The views of pub regulars point towards a positive attitude to the new licensing system. Overall, 36% say the new laws have been a change for the better. There are broader indications of improvement on other key fronts also. Around the country, reports from police indicate that alcohol-fuelled crime and disorder, in particular violent crime, is declining. Those who stated with absolute conviction that extended hours would open the flood gates to a surge in drinking have equally been flummoxed by the facts. Our alcohol consumption per head has fallen by 2% over the last 12 months - the first decline for nine years. While there is much success that has been achieved over the course of the last year, there is still more improvement to be made. In particular, the industry needs to systematically improve performance in the areas of underage sales and serving to drunks. Measurable and marked improvement in these areas would do much to improve further the reputation of the sector. Given the rightful visibility of our sector in the high profile and ongoing debate about alcohol and the drinking patterns and behaviours of our society we have to ensure we not only recognise but act on our responsibilities to our consumers and communities. Mark Hastings is communications director at the British Beer & Pub Association. A more comprehensive version of this article appears in the December issue of M&C Report