Exit interview

'I’m not a person who believes we can keep every pub open'

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Last orders? Although Brigid Simmonds is departing her role at the BBPA, she is keen to work with the sector again in the future
Last orders? Although Brigid Simmonds is departing her role at the BBPA, she is keen to work with the sector again in the future

Related tags: Bbpa, Public house, Beer, brexit, Alcoholic beverage

Outgoing British Beer & Pub Association chief executive Brigid Simmonds examines her time in the role.

Sporting background

After an eight-year short service commission, including a two-year stint working on public relations at the Ministry of Defence, Brigid Simmonds became chief executive of Business in Sport and Leisure in 1992.

Her book Developing Partnership in Sport and Leisure: A Practical Guide​ led to appointments to the Sport England Lottery Panel and the main Sport England board. She has twice been chairman and is a current director of the Tourism Alliance and served as a non-executive director of Leicester City Football Club.

Leicester

Simmonds was awarded an OBE for services to sport in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of June 2006 and has been chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) since September 2009.

After stepping down from the BBPA on 11 October, Simmonds will become chairman of the new Betting & Gaming Council – a combination of the Association of British Bookmakers and the Remote Gambling Association.

In the words of Fuller’s chief executive and British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) chairman Simon Emeny, “force of nature” Brigid Simmonds led the organisation with “confidence, sharp intellect and humour” since 7 September 2009.

She departs as recent figures reveal the UK on-trade poured 8.5bn pints in 2018 – on average 269 per second – and with the sense that she’s leaving the organisation in better condition than the one she inherited.

“When I arrived at the BBPA, they’d definitely lost their way and as a sector we’d lost our way in working with Government in relation to beer duty,” Simmonds explains in her office in the City of London. “We’d had a 42% increase in beer duty over four years that was crippling the industry and was crippling pubs – we’d closed 5,000 pubs and lost 8,000 jobs.”

However, after spending 10 years, one month and five days in the BBPA’s top job, Simmonds – a self-proclaimed optimist – recalls plenty of reason to raise a (perennially half-full) glass.

“I’d have to say that one of my proudest moments was when George Osborne supported us and cut beer duty for the first time in his 2012 Budget,” she says.

“Since 2014, we’ve had three cuts, three freezes and beer duty has only risen once. While there are many others in the industry who have played their part, what I think that we have done at the BBPA is acted as the co-ordinator for all of that.”

In her organisation’s crusade against an exorbitant tax triple-whammy, Simmonds claims that convincing consumers to support the industry has been vital. She explains that since the start of 2019, around 75,000 people have written to their MP in support of a cut in beer duty thanks to the Long Live the Local campaign, for example.

However, despite progress, Simmonds concedes that there is still work to do in tackling the on-trade’s fiscal bugbear.

“We’re paying 2.8% of the total business rates bill when we only equate to 0.5% of turnover,” she explains. “But the fact that if you have a rateable value of less than £51,000 you have a third off your business rates, is enormously helpful for a lot of smaller community pubs and that’s something we’ve been able to do for the whole of the pub sector.”

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Pub closures

When Simmonds became chief executive in 2009 there were 55,900 pubs in the UK according to her organisation’s figures. Yet the BBPA’s latest number is 47,600 – a drop of 8,300, which equates to a pub closing roughly every 12 hours.

How does Simmonds explain this?

“I’m not a person who believes we can keep every pub open,” she says. “Demographics are changing and there are historic pubs in places that cannot support them.

“I’m always saying to people who want to protect pubs in their local area, ‘don’t protect pubs artificially’. If you’ve got two pubs in an area, both which are struggling, if you try to keep them both open they’ll inevitably both close.

“In some places we can’t support every pub and need to be realistic, but I still think good pubs are doing well. We now serve 1bn meals a year in pubs, we’ve got 50,000 bedrooms and we’ve got pubs that serve local food, local beer, they’re iconic and fascinating and people still want to go to them so let’s keep those pubs going. But, if you don’t go to the pub you will lose them.”

Does she feel the governments she’s worked with have done enough?

“There’s always more that governments can do and I think one of the problems we have is we’re covered by every Government department: the Treasury does tax, the Home Office does licensing, the community pubs minister is in the ministry for local government, the department of health obviously has an interest in us. Government departments are very good at working in silos and getting them to work together to look at what they’re doing in terms of regulations to pubs is always a battle. There’s genuine support for pubs across Government but making sure they don’t overregulate us is something that we have to be conscious of all the time.”

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Pushing the pub agenda

An “absolute devotee” of Leicester City football club – of whom she was previously a non-executive director – Simmonds is far less partisan when it comes to politics.

Despite a role in rallying the trade to lobby the Governments of Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and now Boris Johnson, Simmonds declares she’s not the slightest bit political.

“I have worked with a whole range of politicians across every party and, to me, good politicians are those that introduce good policies for something I care about – which is beer and pubs,” she says. “I would say there has been some really good support, but I have to be honest on duty and say that the work that we’ve done with the current Government has been really important, but we also have a lot of supporters from the Labour party.”

In recognition of the challenges facing the pub sector require cross-party support, Simmonds spent her last month at the BBPA – and several days since departing – visiting party conferences from the Lib Dem and Labour gatherings in Bournemouth and Brighton to the SNP conference at The Event Complex Aberdeen (TECA) in Aberdeen – the next host of BrewDog’s annual AGM.

“To me, it’s cross-political support that’s important to everyone,” she says. “The average MP has 72 pubs in their constituency so whatever your background, whichever political party you’re a member of, you should be supporting the great British pub.”

Yet, with all that’s going on at Westminster between Brexit, Boris and a host of issues bubbling away behind parliament’s crumbling facade, is it a concern that the issues affecting pubs won’t get the attention they require?

“That’s a worry for anyone who works with the Government at the moment,” she explains. “I will say that we had our Long Live the Local drop-in and had 34 MPs turn up on the day – and it was a really important day in parliament – so they are supportive. But in legislative terms, there are some things I’m worried about. I don’t want to them to make a decision about us putting calories on menus without considering the effect that it will have on meals that are provided locally. It’s fine if you’re a big chain and you serve the same menu in each and every place, but it’s much more difficult for an individual, independent pub that’s changing its menu on a daily basis. Those discussions need to continue before they make a decision on the legislation and I worry that some of those things have just been forgotten about. Another one is deposit return schemes, we’ve got one being introduced in Scotland and they’re looking at it in England and Wales, but they need some detailed discussions. Why include glass? Glass is, on the whole, recycled and the cost of including it is huge.

“I do worry about those things but one of the reasons we go to all these party conferences is the number of politicians you see and can have those conversations with.”

Brigid Simmonds (2)

Legislation is inflexible

Simmonds, who took the helm at the BBPA three months before the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty came into force, believes instability stemming from the United Kingdom’s decision to exercise the legal right to leave the EU it established poses an ongoing challenge to the on-trade alongside perennial issues of tax and regulation.

“Obviously we’ve got political and economic uncertainty at the moment,” she says. “Money in people’s pockets is really important to pubs. At the moment, they’re obviously prioritising still going out and pubs are part of that – and that has to continue. It’s too easy to put tax up on beer, a British manufacturing industry given 82% of the beer that we drink here is brewed here. It’s an industry that contributes £23bn to the UK economy and pays £13bn in tax.

“We’ve still got the situation where a third of the price of a pint goes to the treasury. Those are the issues that Government is going to have to struggle with. They need to make sure they keep supporting the great British pub in fiscal and regulatory terms.”

What’s more, Simmonds acknowledges the difficulties of working through the hangover from the pubs code’s introduction in July 2016.

“The pubs code legislation has not been easy and I think that will continue to be a challenge,” Simmonds says. “The six companies held by the statutory code are making huge strides and I don’t think that’s necessarily being recognised.

“I’m a passionate believer that the low-cost entry into running your own pub offered by the tenanted and leased system has to be kept, but any legislation is inflexible for both sides.”

Next in line…

Succeeding Brigid Simmonds on 4 November will be ex-member of the European Parliament Emma McClarkin​ – currently director of global policy for the Sports Integrity Global Alliance.

Becoming the European Parliament’s youngest elected member in 2009, McClarkin represented the East Midlands constituency in Brussels where she served as the vice-president of the European Beer Club.

McClarkin, who described herself as a “very happy Brexiteer” in an interview with Politico in August 2018, has also worked as chair of the Commonwealth Forum, as a government relations executive for the Rugby Football Union, and is a special advisory board member at the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.

In 2015, she pledged her support to local breweries and pubs through the ‘Brew with your MEP’ campaign during which she stated she would back them “wherever possible”.

On her appointment, McClarkin said: “The great British pub is an institution – it provides a home for the amazing beers we brew in the UK as well as a hub for local produce and local people.

“The industry is a showcase for innovation and how business can contribute to society and I’m looking forward to telling that story in my new role.”

Emma McClarkin

Home of social responsibility

Announcing that Simmonds had taken the reins at the BBPA in September 2009, The Morning Advertiser​ quoted her as saying she wanted to push the agenda on socially responsible drinking – something she “absolutely” feels she’s achieved.

“We now drink 24% less alcohol than we did in 2004,” Simmonds explains. “We’ve encouraged people to go to pubs because that is where you’ve got people around you – I think that’s the home of social responsibility.

“There’s more work that we can with Government in that area, but I definitely think that people understand the message about moderation, and that’s been one of the successes of my time here.”

Simmonds has made a similar pledge before becoming chairman of the new Betting & Gaming Council – “a new organisation that is going to amalgamate three organisations and bring together casinos, betting shops as well as the online businesses”.

“The social responsibility codes around who plays gaming machines in pubs are under a bit of scrutiny at the moment with the Gambling Commission,” she says. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to help with that.”

“The brewing industry has been at the forefront of social responsibility. We have the billion-unit pledge that took a billion units out of the alcohol industry and was mainly led by beer and have given a lot of support to Drinkaware.

“I have got to create the same things within the gambling industry. I think they’re there but are not as well co-ordinated as in the beer and pub sector. That’s going to be my challenge going forward and will definitely be leaning on best practice that’s been established here.”

But what makes this new challenge so appealing after a decade at the BBPA?

“I actually love the BBPA – I think the members are absolutely wonderful and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here – but you do come to a stage where, when offered a really interesting new challenge, you make the decision to do it.

“I leave the BBPA with real regrets in lots of ways, I will always be a supporter of beer and brewing and of pubs and I will hope to do some things within the sector, there’s no conflict with the job I’m going to do, and will always speak for them.

“I’m hoping that some of the pub and beer sector will ask me to do things for them – I’m already in a couple of discussions along those lines.”

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