Nick Bish: Mr Mediator

By Hamish Champ

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fair pint Mediation

As the last round of Westminster hearings into the pub sector loomed, the much-publicised industry mediation process, helmed by Association of...

As the last round of Westminster hearings into the pub sector loomed, the much-publicised industry mediation process, helmed by Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) chief executive Nick Bish, held much promise.

In the event there were many who regarded the exercise as a wasted opportunity; others saw it more as an abject failure. Certainly those representatives from CAMRA and anti-tie campaign group Fair Pint who attended the series of meetings in October and November felt it had drawn a blank.

But three months on, the dust has started to settle and Bish doesn't agree with the suggestion that the mediation effort was fruitless.

He points to the recent framework document, jointly published by the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations and the BII.

"Everyone said mediation failed. I don't think it did at all," he says.

"The industry is beginning to change and that is a positive outcome of mediation.

"The framework document was one success and while it might have happened anyway in the wake of Peter Luff [chairman of the Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS) committee, which will make further recommendations on the future of the industry any day now] it wouldn't have been the shape it is, or contained what it now contains. And the Independent Pub Confederation (IPC) came out of it as well."

Which surely raises a conundrum for the body representing multiple operators. What has the ALMR's siding with the IPC, an umbrella body that includes Fair Pint, done for its standing within the industry?

Working together

Bish is pragmatic, not least because he has to be. "You live with your bedfellows," he said. "Whatever difficulties there are can be resolved by staying true to one's self, and by being true to the aims of the ALMR. If there are pitfalls one has to recognise them, run with them and work around them, modifying one's behaviour to keep everybody together."

This throws up two issues. First, the ALMR came out last year against a referral of the pub industry to the Competition Commission, which surely makes the IPC's 'sleeping arrangements' a tad uncomfortable. And then there's the issue of the beer tie, which Fair Pint and CAMRA want swept away, or at least seriously reformed. Surely these areas will create schisms?

"We're party to and happy with the IPC's statement that there should be a referral," said Bish.

"The importance is to get action taken now and not two years down the line," he added, arguing that the work required on submissions would be a major blow. "Our mantra has been 'undertakings in lieu of a referral'. We hope it doesn't happen, which isn't the same thing at all."

So what about the issue of the tie, one of the cornerstones of anti-pubco arguments?

"People have, sometimes mischievously, sometimes because we haven't explained ourselves clearly enough, not understood our position," he said. "The ALMR is not against the tie. We understand that if you make beer and you own properties it is a reasonable business model to have a supply deal called the tie. Not every regional brewer sells into a freetrade network. They often need a tied estate. Provided they treat their lessees and tenants properly, there is nothing wrong with that."

Which begs a question as to the state of his organisation's current relationship with the BBPA in the wake of the mediation process and the formation of the IPC - for which ALMR communications guru Kate Nicholls acts as secretary. On this, Bish declined to comment.

Fighting for everyone

However, he does claim the ALMR is a 'broad church'. "We feel we are a voice for publicans and that we represent multiple operators. We seek also to be a champion for pubs, which sees us aligned with the BBPA."

Bish said the ALMR must ultimately examine its conscience "as to whether what we have done has been right for the industry, and not just for a niche gang or part of our membership". He clearly thinks it has, adding that to some extent the pub companies have been dragged 'kicking and screaming' towards a better way of working, which he puts down to the success of mediation and other activity.

"We want to see pubcos provide a better deal for their lessees," he says. "There is no mileage, nor enthusiasm, certainly for the ALMR, to continue this campaign forever. There needs to be something that we can characterise as a success and it won't be a universal halving of rents for every lessee in the land by June 30. It's not like that. You can't wave a magic wand, escape with one bound and be free."

Despite the ALMR's differences with the BBPA and others, Bish argues there has been unity when it comes to the sector's problems, most recently over the government's plans for an alcohol retailing code. "The worst aspects of the code were fought off by a combined effort of us all to say what was being proposed was rubbish," he says.

With the anti-alcohol brigade seemingly gaining momentum and the industry entering a critical phase, Bish inevitably sees the ALMR as a vital component, despite recent setbacks and adverse comment from certain quarters.

"We are more relevant than ever and we are demonstrably good at what we do because we can marshal arguments and make a difference. We're not a single-issue body. We've a track record of tackling multiple issues and we have a vision and ambition to return to that reputation."

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