The great debate over free tap water at pubs

By Robert Mann contact

- Last updated on GMT

Watergate: if you refuse your customers tap water you could face a fine or a licence review
Watergate: if you refuse your customers tap water you could face a fine or a licence review
In recent months, there has been a huge debate around whether tap water should be free for customers in pubs and bars.

No matter what anyone’s opinion is on the subject, it’s imperative to remember that – under Home Office guidance – any business that has a licence to serve alcohol must provide free drinking water to anyone who asks for it.

Even so, that didn’t stop Bristolian bar owner Sam Espensen claiming that this requirement leads to people drinking nothing but tap water, explaining it hurts businesses like hers​.

The co-owner of Bristol Spirit was criticised for telling customers on Facebook to be “more aware” of independents businesses, where she says drink sales make up a “hefty proportion” of overall trade.

Plea is made

Espensen said that if people continue ordering tap water, it will affect the  wider bar and pub trade far – which she said is contending with enough already.

She told The Morning Advertiser ​that, despite becoming the “unwilling face of tap water”, she is glad to have opened up the conversation about it.

“Last month, we made a plea to customers to consider the fact that if they don’t buy an alcoholic or soft drink from a small business, it makes it harder to run a profitable business,” she recalled.

“If you come to Bristol Spirit and you only drink free tap water, we will not make enough money from your table to break even, let alone turn a profit.

“Just like the no-shows issue, the more of us who comment that we do suffer from too many free water drinkers, the more public awareness there will be.”

Her comments come at a time when most people in the UK do not know their rights when it comes to free drinking water from businesses and public buildings.

Know the rules

A survey by independent environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy​, revealed that only 25% of the public know when they can ask for water for free – while 71% feel awkward asking for water from venues if they are not a customer.

But, even if they are buying something, more than a third feel awkward asking for their water bottle to be filled.

So when can customers ask for a free glass of water, and when can’t they?

All licensed premises in England and Wales are required, by law, to provide “free potable water” to their customers upon request.

Water fight

This means that pubs, bars, nightclubs, cafés, restaurants, takeaway food and drink outlets, cinemas, theatres, and even village and community halls – must abide by those rules – so long as they are authorised to serve alcohol.

However, these premises can charge people for the use of a glass – or their service – when serving the “free” tap water.

Despite this, the fight over whether customers should pay for tap water dramatically escalated last month after a customer at the Clock Hotel pub in Hebburn, North Tyneside, claimed he was refused a glass of water.

He says he was asked to pay £1 for a glass of tap water​, despite declaring that he had a medical condition and needed it so he could take his medication.

He filmed the confrontation that took place at the watering hole.

The Morning Advertiser​ approached the Clock Hotel at the time of the claim, but the pub refused to comment.

On the topic of refusing customers tap water, Helen Ward – a solicitor at licensing law firm Poppleston Allen – affirmed that publicans "might want to think twice" before refusing water to someone in desperate need.

"All pubs are required, by virtue of their premises licences, to provide free potable drinking water on request to customers where it is reasonably available," she affirmed.

"What counts as 'reasonably available' will be a question of fact, although it is likely that a reasonable ground for refusal may be where a premises has temporarily lost their mains water supply and do not have access to any other drinking water such as bottled water.

"The condition only applies to ‘customers’, and licensees may decide to not provide water to an individual who is not purchasing any other goods or services, although they might want to think twice before refusing water to someone in desperate need."


On the other hand, David Bentley, owner of the Old Bowling Green, situated in the picturesque Derbyshire village of Winster, said he is “more than happy” to supply customers with tap water – free of charge.

He added how the pub, which is based high in the hills of the Peak District National Park, often sees customers pass through its doors in search of the thirst-quenching beverage.

“It is a very interesting subject and there is not one single solution,” he said.

“My understanding is that a ‘paying customer’ cannot legally be refused free water on licensed premises.

“We happily supply water to all customers – even to passing walkers who have an empty water bottle – anything to reduce the unacceptable waste of plastic.”

Bentley affirmed that, despite spending a four-figure sum on his water bill per annum, he chooses to spruce up his tap water offering with the addition of, upon request, sliced fruit and ice.

“I find it entirely reasonable to supply free water to such a customer and we are pleased to do so and include a slice of fruit and ice if required," he affirmed.

“There are, however, costs involved in supplying such a drink.

“Our water bill for the year is over £1,600 and we are a small outlet – opening just 33 hours per week.

“You also have to take into account the costs of ice, fruit, glassware and the servicing area occupied by the drinker.”

Perfect outcome

Bentley said that a small charge for tap water could, one day, become a better outcome for all.

“We understand that some establishments are under financial pressure and, as they say, every little helps, perhaps a small charge would remove the resentment that is clearly being felt by some,” he explained.

“Would a member of a party, who only wanted water – when the other members were paying for drinks – be classed as such?

“We will continue to serve tap water for free as I am a bit bemused that customers should regard this facility as a right.

“It is a privilege, but so often a privilege becomes a right.”

Serious matter

With tap water widely seen as a staple on many restaurant tables across the UK, Ted Bruning, author of The Bar Owners’ Handbook ​– a guide on how to start and run your own licensed premises – believes refusing customers the beverage is a “serious matter”.

“You have to serve free tap water to customers if they ask for it – full stop,” he exclaimed.

“The licensing objectives and the mandatory conditions attached to them are absolutely fundamental to the harm reduction policy contained within the Licensing Act 2003.

“Every licensee and every member of staff should know them by heart because licensing committees will take a very dim view of public complaints.

“It’s completely contrary to the spirit of the law and a complainant could point out with reason that you don’t charge for glassware when serving anything else, and if you do so with water then the water isn’t genuinely free.”

Under the circumstances and with Government laws firmly set in stone, it is important to remember that: if you refuse your customers tap water, you could face a fine or face a review of your licence to sell alcohol.

One possible solution could be for pubs and bars to charge water drinkers for service and use of a glass – which is, currently, allowed under the current law.

But, then again, many people might resent being charged for something that they’ve come to regard as free.

Related topics: Soft & Hot Drinks

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