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Fri 18th Dec 2020 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Anti-alcohol lobby maintains influence, we are on our own, a kick in the baubles
Authors: Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott, Ted Schama, Nick Weir, Duncan Lillie and Victoria Oates
 

Anti-alcohol lobby maintains influence by Glynn Davis

It was just a matter of days before Christmas and in the heart of London’s Soho the festive season would normally be going full throttle but when I opened the door to the compact Lyric pub on Great Windmill Street at 2pm, I was not met with the happy sounds of revelry but instead there was complete silence. There was not a single other customer in the place. 
 
With the government’s ongoing flip-flopping covid-19 policies, it was sadly no great surprise to see such little activity in this part of town, including a closed-up Be At One bar across the road when I glanced out through the Lyric’s window. I thanked the bar staff for remaining open when so many other businesses around them had decided it was not economically viable to open during what would normally be their peak time of the year. 
 
During my visit, I was joined by a modest number of people who were equally pleased to have the opportunity to enjoy some hospitality – including a substantial meal, of course. This appetite for some pub time was made more acute on this particular afternoon because by 3.45pm, with the volume on the TV having been briefly turned up, we had listened to Matt Hancock deliver the well-flagged news that London and other southern counties would be moved into tier three. Pubs and restaurants would be forced to close their doors again. In the Lyric, this was greeted with universal disappointment and disdain, most notably from the bar staff who, like many hundreds of thousands of other people in hospitality, find their livelihoods hanging by a thread – yet again.
 
The announcement gave something of a bunker mentality to the Lyric’s clientele as the pub is, to many people, still regarded as an oasis where you can escape from the troubles swirling around beyond the doors. And there are certainly plenty of troubles about right now. Even Brexit seems like a bit of light relief on the news at the moment. We all know the pub was deemed vitally important for morale during World War II but in the battle with today’s war against covid-19, the boozer is seemingly the enemy. Rather than offering it any protection – or at least treated fairly – the government seems hell-bent on inflicting as much damage as possible on the pub and the wider hospitality sector.
 
Wet-led boozers, in particular, have been in the firing line. With the “substantial meal” rule causing much pain and leaving many businesses struggling to introduce food into their mix. Such odd moves, based on no scientific evidence, can only mean one thing – that the anti-alcohol lobby maintains influence. Victorian-era temperance has not gone away by any means. The argument that pushes the dangers of alcohol always wins out over the one that promotes its life-affirming capabilities and argues for the vital role pubs play at the heart of their local communities.
 
The pub has faced many threats over the years. I have sitting upon my bookshelf “The Death of the English Pub” by Christopher Hutt, which was published in 1973. It highlights the threat to the traditional pub from the growing power of the large brewers. Their power was nothing compared with that wielded by those individuals in and around government who are more than happy to see the pub as collateral damage in the war against covid-19. In fact, it might be the case they regard the virus as rather a good opportunity to inflict some damaging strikes on the pub sector.
 
Whatever the motives, the reality is many viable businesses are being forced over the edge and the number of failed pubs, bars, restaurant and nightclubs is growing by the day. When Shepherd Neame announced it might permanently close some of its City of London pubs, I immediately recalled the many happy lunchtimes spent drinking in the East India Arms on Fenchurch Street in the 1980s. And then there is the Roadhouse in Covent Garden where, in the 1990s, I met my wife. It has sadly closed its doors for the last time, as has bikers bar the Crow Bar where, during the 2000s, I’d frequently pop in for a quick bottle of Icelandic beer and a shot of bourbon, and in the latter 2010s, I enjoyed visits to the hidden-away London Beer House that is now boarded up. The way things are going, who knows what will be left for pub lovers to enjoy during the rest of this decade and beyond.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends
 

We are on our own by Ann Elliott

“So hoping that we all see some cheer in the new year and put 2020 down to a proper annus horribilis” – a message repeated, though maybe worded differently, in many of the Christmas cards I’ve opened this year. 

I am not alone in thinking that the 2020 annus horribilis will continue through the first quarter and possibly into the second in 2021. The government seems to be walking (with some determination) away from the sector believing it has supported it as much as it wants to, or is going to do, through Eat Out To Help Out, furlough, loans, £1,000 payments, VAT reduction, rates moratorium and the intervention on rents.

Despite our brilliant and intense lobbying, I don’t believe any more support will be forthcoming. We can protest as much as we like but it feels like no one is listening, understands or is interested any more in what we have to say. It’s as though they’ve heard it all before and just want the sector to move on and stop complaining. Perhaps they are thinking: “OK, some of you will go bust. That’s not great but so be it. We are not going to support businesses that might fail anyway. See you mid-2021 when we will pick up the pieces we want to pick up.”

We are not behaving impeccably as a sector and neither are our customers. The majority of friends I know are not adhering to 100% of the rules 100% of the time. They are picking and choosing which ones they are following (and then sometimes indignant at others who break different rules to them). I have been into pubs and restaurants where it’s patently obvious there is more than one household sitting at a table inside. I don’t mind and I can’t criticise for a minute. I do wonder though how much of this is being noted by the government.

I think we are on now on our own for the next four to six months.

Some businesses, of course, have performed well in 2020 including QSR, delivery, drive-thrus, food and drink retail, online offers and restaurants/food-led suburban and rural pubs (for some of the year). There has been a seismic shift in consumer behaviour that has benefited and will continue to benefit these companies – with or without government support.

It’s not been an equitable world. Others have not done OK. I was going to say, “… and we all know who they are” but we don’t. There will be thousands of founders and entrepreneurs who earned their living from their own restaurant, pub, hotel or B&B but don’t any longer. There will be thousands of suppliers in our sector who have had to shut up shop and are now watching their savings disappear as they try to hold themselves and their families together. Not all of them will have been able to access government funding either. They are on their own for different reasons.

Like many others, I feel angry, depressed, frustrated and powerless. Like many others, I will hunker down over the next few months and help as many companies and individuals as I can to get their businesses in good order and ready to start again as soon as they can. We have no other option. 

So many operator businesses I know are now much leaner than they were even six months ago. They are faster and more agile. They have removed loss-making sites so they aren’t distracted from growing sales in their best sites. They have streamlined processes, consultation, collaboration and decision making. Taking out layers of management has resulted in them becoming more innovative and willing to try and fail. They have “sorted out” their debt and have funding. They are ready to acquire and are now looking again.

So alongside frustration is an optimism about next year and the art of the possible. There is a lot of fresh and innovative thinking out there. We may be on our own as far as the government is concerned but we are not alone as a sector. Perhaps now is the time to put our efforts into working together for the future rather than trying to plead our cause with a government that thinks it has done enough and doesn’t appear to want to listen.
Ann Elliott is a hospitality strategist, connector and adviser

A kick in the baubles by Ted Schama, Nick Weir, Duncan Lillie and Victoria Oates

Despair and anger. Those words summarise what the majority of the hospitality sector is feeling right now. And it is understandable.
 
The government’s seemingly baseless targeting of the industry in its fight against coronavirus, a fight the statistics indicate we are not winning based on comparisons with other countries, was already causing untold damage. But the moving of London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire into tier three is likely to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many operators, and probably some landlords too.
 
Earlier this week, the latest unemployment figures revealed the hospitality sector is bearing the brunt of the economic impact. According to the ONS, the industry accounts for a third of the job losses. What the headlines do not convey is the majority of those affected are younger people, a demographic that has been continually hard hit throughout the pandemic. And tier three could lead to a further 160,000 job losses, compounding an already dire situation.
 
And then we have the food waste as a consequence of giving London just 24 hours to prepare for tier three. Millions of pounds of food is literally being thrown away because restaurants, cafes and bars have had to close their doors, which is ironic given the stance the government took over free school meals.
 
All this is happening too with little evidence to back it up, or that the measures work. A cynic might argue the government is using the pandemic to mask another agenda, introducing measures it knows will fundamentally and permanently change the industry and consumer behaviour. But to what end and does it justify the human and economic impact the hospitality sector is unfairly bearing?
 
After a tough year, is this really how we all want to finish it?
 
The short answer has to be no. We need to be rallying now as a sector to ensure we fare better in 2021. That is easier said than done though, so perhaps we should all work together to focus on achieving a few fundamental milestones in the new year. While not an operator or a landlord, we work exclusively in the hospitality sector, so feel its pain as keenly as everyone else, and are as passionate about the need to rebuild as the industry’s most ardent advocates. So this is our take on where we go next:
 
1. Secure a minister for hospitality. We called for this in early October and the mantle has been taken up across the industry. We need to be shouting collectively and loudly for the government to do the right thing and give the sector a voice on the inside. The good news is, more than 150,000 people have signed the petition, which means the government must consider it as a subject for debate by MPs. We are not there yet though, so we must continue to push for this to happen
 
2. Undertake a genuine and progressive reform of the business rates system. Doing so will require boldness and creativity, not least because of the scale of what is at stake in terms of tax revenue. Yet failure to do so, and to do so quickly, will decimate the ability of many town and city centres across the UK to recover from the impact of the successive lockdowns and tier restrictions
 
3. The government needs to take its head out of the sand and deal with the debt mountain accumulating as a consequence of the forfeiture moratoria and lack of action on rents. While intervention in business may not be a Conservative policy, the moment for inaction passed a long time ago. By doing nothing though, the government is taking the industry back decades, and with it high streets, towns and cities across the UK. And this is not a plea to bail out landlords or operators, simply a request to recognise there is a significant issue, and to meet the sector at least a third of the way. If not, the shutters will not be raised, doors will remain closed, and lights will stay switched off in restaurants, bars, cafes, theatres, cinemas and nightclubs the length and breadth of the country
 
If anyone of influence in the government is reading this, these requests are not unreasonable given the importance of the hospitality sector to the UK. It is the fourth biggest employer in the country, accounting for around six million direct and indirect jobs, and generates over £70bn of GVA to the UK economy directly.
 
More than that, as we look to rebuild our towns and cities, the industry’s operators will have a vital role to play due to their significance in creating a sense of place and community. From grabbing a cup of coffee on the way to work, to enjoying lunch somewhere new while visiting a city, to catching up with friends or colleagues for a pint or dinner after work, the hospitality industry is what makes our society tick – day in, day out – whatever the weather and regardless of what is going on.
 
It is also a highly entrepreneurial sector. After all, so many in the hospitality industry make a living by making something. It is an industry that innovates, that has made pivoting an art form. It is an industry of people passionate about their product and the people they provide it to. Individually and collectively, they have a fire that can help ignite the nation’s recovery. Please do not extinguish it. 
Ted Schama, Nick Weir, Duncan Lillie and Victoria Oates are partners at property agent Shelley Sandzer

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