Our local paper, the Southport Visiter, has a front page headline: "Pubs rebel on beer prices of breweries", reporting that licensees in tied pubs may be balloted on strike action by the GMB union in the new year. The GMB website reports on the issue here. The main causes include high rents and overpricing of beer that licensees can buy only through the pub companies (pubcos), even though they could, if permitted, buy much cheaper elsewhere, but only at the risk of losing their pubs. These excessive costs are in part passed on to us customers, but even so many pubs are struggling to stay afloat ~ the beer drinker's pocket is not bottomless. Sadly, many pubs fail: the rate of pub closures was estimated to be 52 per week in the first half of this year, and the Visiter article states that Southport has lost around 10% of its pubs in the last four years. The problem is a real one: in May this year the House of Commons Business and Enterprise Committee found that two thirds of tied tenants earn less than £15,000 per annum for up to 60 hours per week.
Among observers of the pub trade, there is some disagreement as to whether the tie should be reformed or scrapped. My own view, for what it's worth, is that to abolish the tie would create a vacuum with unpredictable consequences. Those who envisage a new world of free houses and more beer choices are probably being wildly optimistic, and besides I don't know of any evidence that most tied tenants want this. The last major change brought about by the Beer Orders of 20 years ago (when breweries were obliged to sell most of their pubs) was widely welcomed by many at the time including CAMRA, but it led directly to the current position. No one can be certain where a further sweeping change might take us.
Whatever the outcome of a ballot, and I'm with the tied tenants on this one, I hope that the pubcos don't resort to bully boy tactics and lawyers, and instead recognise that there are real problems for many of their tenants and do something to address them. But then, I've often been called an optimist...
The photograph shows the closed Becconsall pub in Hesketh Bank. A local campaign to “Save the Bec for the Community” (click here and scroll down to 30 October 2009) is being supported by the local branch of CAMRA.