The decision of Marstons to sell some 200 of its wet-led pubs has met with a degree of concern that is hardly surprising, but should that really be so? The giant PubCos are a mess and have little coherent branding, but Marstons and Greene King, huge in themselves, but disconcertingly under the radar in most circumstances, are quietly changing their wet focus into food-led with drink as an add on. They are building large new pubs to emphasise this point, so there is surely little shock that bottom end pubs with little prospect of fitting into a different mainstream future are being disposed of? It is not simply the move to food that has motivated Marstons however, as the company needs to reduce its £1 billion debt and the £90 million deal will come in handy for this purpose. But it will also be used to build more new pubs, or should that be pub/restaurants?
What is more worrying is the buyer. In this case NewRiver Retail, which plans to convert most of them into shops or supermarkets. The pubs it seems, have been sold for that very purpose. This already happens a lot, sometimes openly, but often by stealth and in ones and twos. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale feels that to allow such change of use without the planners being able to intervene or the public to object, is a loophole which is too easily exploited. Maybe, but in some cases at least the alternative will never and never could be retaining them as pubs, so poor is the business. In some cases though, it is not so clear cut. CAMRA has announced it will oppose the changes of use. Mike Benner, the Chief Executive said "The fact that this sale has happened is a result of a dysfunctional
planning system which means pubs are regarded as easy pickings by
developers. CAMRA will be using this
development to press home the case for tougher planning protection for
pubs and for greater consumer consultation when they are threatened with
All well and good and I agree that it is right that planning law should include changes of use in such cases, especially since so many shops are empty (though often, unlike pubs, in the wrong places) but the underlying trend of big brewers and small getting out of many marginal wet led pubs will continue. As Curmudgeon pointed out, even here in Manchester, Lees and Robinsons are doing just that, though not in their cases to alleviate debt. It may well be the case that the wet led pub has a limited future under certain kinds of ownership and that is likely to be under the control of individual owners and small chains, where they see that the market exists if the right beers are sold and the right offer is made. At least this time we will know in advance which pubs are affected. That's useful, but one thing is for sure, they won't all be viable as pubs. I'll of course be interested as a local CAMRA Chairman to see if any of our pubs are affected.That'll put more meat on the bones.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer author, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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