A Kent pub's solution to the smoking ban

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Licensee Robert Wigham's solution to the impending smoking ban is rather like a classic sports car owner attaching an ultra-modern Formula One...

Licensee Robert Wigham's solution to the impending smoking ban is rather like a classic sports car owner attaching an ultra-modern Formula One spoiler onto their vehicle's rear.

His addition of a state-of-the-art "patiola" to a country freehouse dating from 1720 may look a little incongruous at first. However, in the weeks since it was installed, customers at the Red Lion in Stodmarsh, Kent, have got used to the sleek new look, and the practical benefits are clear even through the most dense puff of smoke.

The patiola is an all weather gazebo featuring a retractable roof, heaters and CCTV, all controllable by remote. When the ban comes into force next summer, smokers will have a comfortable, purpose-built area in which to indulge their habit.

The Red Lion can be seen as a kind of test case for the options open to licensees under both the smoking regulations and planning permission. It is a bold move by Robert, considering the Act is still in the consultation phase and the guidelines for smoking areas may yet change.

Indeed, supplier to the Red Lion, Greene King, has recognised the freehouse's role as a forerunner. Greene King's southern regional sales manager, Keith Chapman, visited the pub to assess the viability of a patiola for properties in Greene King's estate.

He praised Robert's proactive approach. "Other licensees are burying their heads in the sand," he says. "This is by far the best piece of equipment I have seen. Robert leads the field. This is a great showcase."

Robert paid £9,000 for its installation by Kent-based curtain and blind manufacturer Crystal. It is a heavily discounted rate, negotiated because the project acted as a pilot scheme for Crystal, which hopes it can offer a quality solution to licensees in these impending smoke-free times.

The custom built structure is made of aluminium, UV-coated, waterproof external fabrics and Georgian beaded glass, and features a guttering system. The style has long been popular abroad, where patiolas have withstood the weather on beachfronts around the continent.

The patiola has proved a huge success at the Red Lion since it opened in late August. It has provided much needed extra room for the food-led pub,

proving a big draw for people wanting to eat in the novel semi-al fresco surroundings. With the average customer spending £30 a head, it won't be long before Robert sees a return on his expenditure.

Indeed, there's no real way the pub can lose. The space the patiola occupies was formerly unexploited, stretching between the pub's back door and beer garden. It currently acts as a very profitable extra eating space. Come the arrival of the ban, the structure will fulfil its purpose as a smoking area.

It is 66 per cent exposed, according to Robert. Under current regulations, a premises must be at least 50 per cent exposed to qualify as outdoors. The Red Lion's deliberately conservative specifications allow for possible changes to this figure, which may emerge from the consultation phase.

Robert established with the council, before going ahead, that there would be few hoops to jump through in terms of legality. Because it is attached at only one point to the walls of the existing building, he was exempt from the need to apply for planning permission for an extension.

Robert believes only a very small percentage of his customers smoke, so it might seem surprising that he has gone to such lengths for smokers. But his motivation is two-fold - purely financial and according to his principles on freedom of choice.

"It's essential to get ahead of the game on this ban," he says, "so that smokers won't stay away when it hits. They know they have a comfortable, clean area here that serves good beer, and having seen this new area, they will be prepared and used to it.

"Yes, the ban should have been introduced. I think it's polite when you're smoking to do it away from non-smokers.

"The smoking ban is like veggies and carnivores. We should be able to accept smoking and non-smoking."

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