"I’ve still got a great deal of energy for the role": BBPA's Brigid Simmonds

By Mike Berry

- Last updated on GMT

Simmonds: "Let’s spend more time on the things that promote our sector in a positive light"
Simmonds: "Let’s spend more time on the things that promote our sector in a positive light"

Related tags Beer duty Pubs Pubs code Minimum wage

She’s been in post since 2009, but for BBPA boss Brigid Simmonds there is no seven-year itch and still plenty of enthusiasm for a job which, at times, has seen her subjected to levels of abuse that would see most people ducking for cover. Mike Berry reports

Listen to an audio clip of the BBPA's Simmonds

A clergyman’s daughter, Simmonds has no doubt blanched at some of the insults directed at her on social media in recent years because of the British Beer and Pub Association’s (BBPA) stance on statutory regulation.

But with the pubs code now law​ and the adjudicator in place, as the association’s chief executive she is calling for a new era of positivity around pubs to help ward off lingering post-Brexit blues.

She particularly wants to extol the benefits of the tenanted and leased sector which, she believes, still has plenty to offer by encouraging entrepreneurialism through its low-cost entry model.

“Let’s not have any more legislation and let’s spend more time on the things that promote our sector in a positive light,” she says. “We’ve got wonderful pubs which, in many cases, serve wonderful food, so there’s much to be positive about.”

Positive stories

She cites the ‘Pubs are GREAT’ campaign​ launched three years ago, which promotes British pubs to overseas visitors as well as those holidaying at home. The BBPA is also heavily involved in the Government-led Great British Food initiative​, the start of a five-year drive to celebrate the best of our food and drink and build Britain’s reputation as a great food nation.

“We should be shouting about the quality of our pubs as we have a product we can proud of. We want good, positive stories about pubs and to change the tone. I’d urge licensees to think about what they can do at a local level to make people proud of their pubs and what the BBPA can do through the support we offer,” Simmonds says.

And despite the pubs code saga, she believes that the sector’s relationship with government has markedly improved in recent times, pointing to the success of successive beer duty cut campaigns as evidence of Whitehall looking more favourably on pubs.


“I think we’ve built a really good relationship. When I started seven years ago the sector was in a very dark place, with increases to duty and significant pub closures. We’ve since had three beer duty cuts and a freeze, so that’s evidence of a positive relationship. We’re going to need to continue that with Teresa May’s new government,” she says.

“One of the difficulties is that there is almost no government department I don’t deal with. They all have some involvement in our sector. But you’ve only got to look at the number of times MPs mention beer and pubs in some context to see the sentiment toward the sector.”

She doesn’t know whether the new PM is a fan of pubs, but lightheartedly promises to try and get a pint of beer in her hand as quickly as possible.

Reducing the burden

High on her agenda is reducing the burden of upcoming regulatory costs set to hit the trade, including planned increases to the national minimum and living wages, the apprenticeship levy and pension auto-enrolment for small businesses.

“We are asking the Government to look at the timetables for some of those to help businesses cope. Do we have to, for example, get to over £9 per hour for the national living wage by 2020? Let’s go back to what the Low Pay Commission was set up to do: assess the economic conditions and if those conditions are going to be harsher, then the rate should reflect that,” she says.

Brigid Simmonds: Key dates

Born Benghazi, Libya
WRAC College Camberley, Short Service Commission
Joins Sargent & Potiriadis (architects) as head of marketing and PR
Becomes CEO at Business In Sport and Leisure
1994 – 2010
Various roles at Sport England, Leicester City FC, Sport & Recreation Alliance and Tourism Alliance
Appointed CEO at the BBPA

On business rates, the BBPA has supported the move to more frequent revaluations and proposed a new self-assessment model​ that would bring some flexibility to the current system without increasing costs.

“The fact that pubs pay 2.8% of the total business rates bill but only equate to 0.5% of turnover says it all. Pubs can’t be virtual – they are bricks and mortar – and we have to find a way of lessening the business rates burden on them,” she insists.

In terms of other campaign battlegrounds, reducing VAT remains a “long-term” goal, but one which she acknowledges is an extremely difficult sell to government.

The BBPA joined forces with the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers earlier this year to continue the fight for a cut in the level of VAT pubs pay but, Simmonds concedes, “I am a political realist”.

Pragmatic view

It was this pragmatic view which prompted the industry-wide campaigns to first axe the beer duty escalator and then cut duty, resulting in an unprecedented hat-trick of beer duty cuts, plus a freeze in this year’s Budget.

“The reason we went for beer duty is we thought it was doable, wouldn’t cost the Treasury that much money and would be a campaign that many MPs would want to be associated with,” she says.

However, the trade has not been universally supportive, with a coalition of top operators criticising this year’s campaign​ as “flawed” and “disingenuous” because cuts were not being passed down to retailers by brewers.

But Simmonds remains defiant. “I stand behind that [the campaign]. Politically it is something that helps us. There are costs which come to brewers from a whole range of things and that’s then reflected in their prices. It was a bit unfortunate and I wish the group had come to us first rather than writing to the Chancellor,” she says.

“People have different priorities but mine is ‘what can we actually achieve?’”

This hard-headedness was evident as she fought against the need for government intervention, insisting that the self-regulatory approach to governing the relationship between pubcos and tenants was working. She repeatedly warned of “unintended consequences” of any future laws, with tenant campaigners accusing her of burying her head in the sand and defending the worst practices of the big pubcos.

Frequent abuse

Simmonds remains defiant about her approach, which has led to frequent and nasty social media abuse from more extreme campaigners. “I like Twitter as a medium and tweet professionally,” she says.

“My view is that you should never say anything on social media that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. There are an awful lot of people who don’t follow that particular philosophy. I’ve got a job to do so I just ignore it.”

Of course, she accepts the reality the sector now finds itself in: a new pubs code and adjudicator and a great deal of uncertainty as to its future impact on the market. “We are where we are,” she says.

However Simmonds is critical of how the former Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) department handled the code’s implementation, labelling the process “a bit of a dog’s dinner”.

She says: “I would score them five out of 10 if I was being generous. I think BIS were distracted by the EU referendum and the steel industry crisis, which was obviously a big issue. But the people involved should have been paying more attention as the regulations were very poorly drafted.”

My favourite pub

Dorset Arms Lewes

I enjoy a number of really good pubs near to where I live. The Dorset Arms in the heart of Lewes, East Sussex is a Harveys house and is all that’s wonderful about pubs.

Not having a transitional period for pub companies to fully prepare is “very poor”, she adds. “The Groceries Code Adjudicator was given a year, even Wonga was given two months”, she says, in reference to the legislation introduced to regulate payday lenders.

And before we move on, she also points the finger at MPs who voted the pubs code legislation through Parliament. “There was enormous political pressure. It’s a hugely complicated area and I think there are very few MPs who really understand [the code]. And for those MPs who think they understand, they were absolutely on a mission to implement it,” she says.

I ask when she feels it might be ‘job done’ at the BBPA. “I’m not sure it ever is,” she replies. “I’ve still got a great deal of energy and enthusiasm for the role and now I will be getting to know different politicians in their new roles. I enjoy the challenge.”

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