Call to arms

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Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, a current Home Office minister and the Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police were among the...

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, a current Home Office minister and the Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police were among the people queuing up to offer pubs words of encouragement at The Publican Conference 2006.

On a conference platform taking the theme of Profitability with Responsibility, each agreed that the trade was doing a good job in tackling disorder around pubs.

Following opening remarks from Caroline Nodder, editor of The Publican and Paul Linthwaite, director of category marketing for headline conference sponsor Britvic, Home Office minister Vernon Coaker came forward to tell the audience the government wanted to work with the trade, rather than against it, to tackle underage drinking and other issues.

Coaker said Whitehall realised that only a "minority of premises" stoked up trouble, and said more individuals needed to take responsibility for their actions. "The role of the personal licence-holders and designated premises supervisors is critical in ensuring safe management of pubs," he said.

The minister also attempted to alleviate the trade's concerns about alcohol disorder zones, where pubs in troubled areas will be asked to pay an extra tax towards policing, arguing he expects there to be "very few" and that they should be a "last resort".

In a head-to-head interview with conference host James Naughtie of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, a relaxed-looking David Blunkett said the industry was improving, with "the best of the trade handling the Act's implementation and anti-binge drinking measures extremely well".

Much of the pub trade had smartened up its act before the new regime came into force, he said. "We in government tend to change a law when things have already begun to improve. The industry had already started to squeeze out the vertical drinking dens," he added.

Against a background of concerns over underage drinking Blunkett reiterated the need for education in schools about the dangers of alcohol.

"We talk to children about drugs in schools but not drink. We ought to be telling kids who are thinking of drinking underage that it will make you fat or unattractive," he said.

A rebuke for Westminster

Blunkett and Naughtie were then joined on stage by Brian Paddick, the outspoken deputy commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police.

Speaking in a private capacity, Paddick said it was clear "the liberalisation of the licensing laws have had at worse a neutral or possibly a beneficial effect" - and had a mild rebuke for councils such as Westminster, which have sought to block later opening.

"In many clubs people are now drifting out during the course of the evening, rather than all being turned out at the same time," he said.

"We've not really seen more alcohol-fuelled violence in boroughs where later opening has been allowed. Some boroughs have gone too far by not allowing later opening."

However, Paddick added: "One fact you can't get away from is that where pubs are open later we are having to provide policing until later in the night."

But Paddick cautioned against anyone reading too much into figures which appeared to show that the Licensing Act was working in helping to cut crime - as all things had not remained equal. For example, he said, there were often more police on the streets and police forces had been given new incentives to cut down on assaults.

Blunkett agreed, adding: "The real issue is how you sustain it."

On-trade vs off-trade

A senior member of the management team at Sainsbury's defended the supermarket giant's record on alcohol sales in a panel session.

Responding to complaints from some panel members that the supermarket was selling alcohol at the fraction of the price that pubs were able to, Nick Grant, Sainsbury's head of legal services (pictured), said the off-trade was under the same regulations as the on-trade. "If I'm perfectly within the law to make a sale to a sober adult at what point do I stop being a policeman for consumption?" he said.

"I believe in freedom to sell alcohol to sober adults."

Mark Angela, managing director of Greene King's managed pub estate, said: "Too much of the spotlight is on the on-trade. The problem should be equally shared."

Angela added that it was clearly the smaller, often independent, convenience stores and off-licences which were more likely to sell to underage children - and Grant agreed.

But Massive managing director Peter Linacre said pubs were clearly the soft target for the media at large. "If incidents are occurring close to a pub, then the finger is pointed to us but it's difficult to tell where the alcohol was actually sourced," he said.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett added: "The on-trade is bound to cop it more than the off-trade because it's more visible."

Branded pubs - dead or alive?

Customers search out pub 'experiences', rather than brands concluded a debate on the future of the branded pub chaired by The Publican's deputy editor Daniel Pearce.

On one side was Alex Salussolia, chief executive of Glendola Leisure, whose concepts include the successful Waxy O'Connor's chain of pubs in London, Glasgow, Manchester and Birimingham. Being a small independent company had many advantages, he said.

"Glendola is not working to a city agenda - we are looking to build over the next 10 to 15 years. In many ways if I found one of my concepts trading next to a big branded pub I would be delighted, simply because we can react to changes in the market much quicker."

Salussolia added there was certainly a future for the branded pub - although he preferred to talk about "customer concepts". "There is a risk of branded outlets falling into the regular 'Starbucks-brand mode', rather than offering customers a real experience," he said.

On the other side of the debate was Paul Symonds, the chief executive of Laurel Pub Company, whose high-street bar chains range from Slug and Lettuce to Yates's. He set out a strong case for the power of Laurel's brands, citing the example of the time an old Casa outlet was replaced with a new Slug and Lettuce as proof of a brand's ability to connect with customers. "The business has now doubled," he said. "And that is because people have engaged with the brand. Our pubs have targeted the right people. We are selling an experience."

Offering an independent view in the debate was Tom Fender, director of Him!, which analyses consumer insights. Brand owners in the UK could learn from fresh thinking in America, he said.

"I found a brand concept that was totally focused on its staff," he said. "They invested a huge amount in them in terms of training and they paid them more than average. Staff turnover decreased but customer service and profitability greatly increased.

"A lot of staff in branded concepts don't feel appreciated. Plus they know very little about the product. That is quite scary."

Reasons to be cheerful

Any downturn in trade caused by consumer caution should be short-lived, delegates were told.

During a barnstorming session on the state of the UK economy, Dennis Turner, chief economist with HSBC, said the two recent interest rate rises from the Bank of England had been prompted by concerns over rising inflation.

However, the main factor pushing inflation had been rising energy costs, said Turner. With these costs now dropping back, inflation should be back on track in the New Year.

That in turn should see a reduction in interest rates - giving consumers back some of their disposable income.

The funny side of the pub trade was the focus of an exclusive Publican Conference Have I Got Booze For You? quiz session, hosted by broadcaster James Naughtie.

The Publican would like to thank all our sponsors on the day, with special thanks to headline sponsor Britvic.

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