Second Reading

Part of Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:33 pm on 2nd December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 6:33 pm, 2nd December 2014

I shall be glad to bring forward some evidence. I have some here but, given the hour, I should not be talking about the Black Bull, Mansfield, which is one of the pubs on which I have some evidence for the noble Lord. We will discuss this at a later stage.

There are two types of integrated pub. The first, called integrated operators, are companies that brew beer and sell it through their own estate, whether managed by employees or tenants in tied pubs. They sell their beers also through supermarkets, free houses and off-licences, but their estate is an important route to market. The second group consist of what are known as pubcos. They do not brew any beer but buy it in, often from the breweries of the integrated operators. Their focus—which the noble Lord, Lord Snape, is driving at—is on rental levels. They are, to some extent, very specialist property companies.

Noble Lords may wonder how on earth this rather counterintuitive second group came into existence. As my noble friend Lord Stoneham of Droxford said earlier, it is the result of a decision of Parliament. The beer orders were designed to strip the breweries of too much market power, and the pubcos were the result. If our predecessors all those years ago had seen where we were going to end up, they might have considered it better to think of an alternative business model. If we do not revisit the decision to end the tie, our successors in 20 years from now may find that, far from this decision slowing pub closures, it may well accelerate them.

Before I get into the rest of my remarks, I need to remind the House that I was, until a year ago, a director of an integrated brewery. We had five breweries, two big and three small, stretching from Cumbria to the New Forest, and more than 2,000 pubs—500 managed and the balance tied in various forms.

Why is it that pubs arouse such strong emotions? In some large measure it is the result of the image that we have of a community—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, earlier this afternoon. That community has three aspects: a church, a post office with a shop and a pub. We may not wish to use them much: we may go to the church on high days and holidays and for hatches, matches and dispatches; to the shop or the post office only to buy the milk when we have forgotten to buy it at the supermarket; and to the pub only for the occasional drink. However, we like them to be there. We also like them for the ambiance we believe they project. We all have our image of the ideal pub: the welcoming atmosphere, the cheery landlord dispensing pints and homespun philosophy over the bar. However, for reasons quite unconnected with the brewers, the pubcos or the tenants, the pub sector is under severe strain.

I identify three fundamental features behind this. The first is the rapid rate of socioeconomic change in Britain. Twenty-five years ago, the company of which I was a director would have operated probably a dozen pubs in Kidderminster, the home of the carpet trade. The carpet trade has gone and there are three pubs left. In areas of Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham the increase in the Muslim population, who do not drink, leads to many pub closures. It is exceptionally hard for a publican who has put 10 years of his life into trying to build up a business to accept the inevitabilities of these tides of history.

Secondly, there is the inexorable rise of regulation and of cost generally. Noble Lords may not be aware that, for many pubs, business rates and council tax are more important items than rent.

Thirdly, there is the availability of low-priced alcohol in supermarkets. The average price of a pint in a UK supermarket last year was £1.13. It would be substantially less in the weeks leading up to Christmas and in the few days before a bank holiday. If any noble Lord can find a pub, tied or untied, that is selling lager at less than £2.50 a pint—more than double the price in a supermarket—let me know and we will go along to sample the wares.

These are trends that defy King Canute, so pubs are likely to continue to close. The reasons for closure may be portrayed as rapacious owners increasing rent, wishing to profit by turning pubs into houses or corner stores, but the tide is turning against the ordinary pub. To offset this trend, the pub has to offer an experience and value for money for its target market: maybe with food, with fine dining or pub grub; maybe for families, with play areas for kids; maybe for younger men, with Sky Sports and pub games; maybe for younger women, with more of a wine bar feel to the place; or maybe for pensioners, with cheap food, particularly at lunch. However, this all requires operational experience and capital resources. It is this that pub owners can provide. It is exceptionally difficult to find capital for all the sorts of things that are required to refurbish a pub—kitchen fittings, signage, fixtures and fittings of one sort or another—and it is the pub owners who can do this.

The balancing item is the tie. The brewery is assured an outlet for its beer and other drinks, though it should always be remembered that every bit of profit from the foods goes to the tenants alone. Remove the tie and you risk removing this ladder, by which many people have become very satisfactorily self-employed. No pub owner is going to invest many thousands of pounds—hundreds of thousands of pounds in some cases—in refurbishing a pub if the tenant can then walk away from supply agreements.

In an effort to lance this boil of suspicion about rents and treatment, some breweries have introduced a franchise agreement, which has been approved by the British Franchise Association. This means that the tenant is in exactly the same position as a franchisee selling hamburgers, pizzas or ice-cream. The Bill apparently proposes to ban even these arrangements. To do so only where they involve a pub and not, for example, a McDonald’s outlet, seems to me to be illogical, perverse and unfair.

My final word must go beyond your Lordships’ House to the wider world: the most important thing to do if you wish to save your local pub is to use it. If you do not, you will lose it whether it is tied or not. I look forward to some vigorous debates in Committee.