Legislation aimed at giving disabled people better access to pubs could hit prices paid for traditional country inns, a licensed trade solicitor has warned.
Jeremy Spooner of City firm Druces & Attlee believes that legal action taken as a result of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) may create a two-tier market with small, old pubs relegated to second-class status.
The next phase of the DDA, which comes into force in 2004, means that retailers, including licensees will have to make "reasonable" efforts to make their pub accessible to disabled people.
"It is conceivable that modern pubs which are more easily converted to allow disabled access will command higher prices than older, listed properties which may be impossible to change," explained Spooner, speaking at a licensed property seminar jointly organised by Druces & Attlee and agent Fleurets.
"Purchasers will be worried that if a pub attracts legal action from one disabled person, there could be more. This could eventually reverse the situation we have at the moment where listed pubs cost more.
"The situation remains to be tested in the courts, but the way the legislation stands at the moment, I can't see how pubs can escape from it."
But his view was challenged by Leeds-based licensed property agent David Stainton, a consultant on the new disabled access laws who has been running seminars on the subject for the hospitality industry.
"I can see how someone can reach that conclusion but it seems a bit scaremongering," he said. "You have got to look at that word "reasonable" that crops up all over the DDA. This takes into account the physical limitations of the building and whether the cost of alterations is prohibitive."
He agreed, however, that 2004 will see a rash of test cases and is urging licensees to take steps to protect themselves against legal action.
"The first step that every publican should take is to audit the property for disabled access. This does not only mean wheelchair access but also the ease with which visually and hearing impaired people can use the pub.
"There are some very simple things that licensees can do to demonstrate they are taking the law seriously and have made an effort. The audit is one thing, but it is also a case of moving around tables and chairs and providing braille menus.
"Rather than build a low bar for wheelchair users, for instance, it is only really necessary to provide table service for them.
"A lot comes down to the attitude of licensees and their staff and the personal attention they give to each of their customers. They still have three years to tackle the issue and it need cost them very little in most cases."
Stainton is concerned, however, that not enough publicans are taking the early steps to make themselves DDA compliant.
"I have done a lot of audits of properties, including country houses, hotels and restaurants, but I have yet to be asked to do a single pub.
"Licensees are facing many new regulations at the moment and it seems that this one has a low priority - which is a shame."
The annual seminar hosted by Fleurets, and this year titled 2001: A Licensed Odyssey, also featured an explanation to prepare their business for sale.
Druces & Attlee's review of recent legislation covered the Licensing White Paper and the Human Rights Act as well as the DDA.