Thursday, 17 July 2014

At last, a cull that might do some good!

I will take a moment this week to celebrate the passing of Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary shuffled out of the government as David Cameron tries to freshen his cabinet in preparation for next year’s general election by culling the 'old white men in suits'.

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was allegedly removed because he had become ‘toxic’ after taking on the teaching unions.  Personally I feel Paterson’s toxicity level should be even higher than Gove’s, but there are no unions defending our wildlife.

Paterson is the man who ignored scientific advice to proceed with the disastrous badger cull, and when that exercise was seen to have failed on both criteria of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘humaneness’ he ludicrously accused badgers of ‘moving the goalposts’!

He is the minister responsible for Britain’s wildlife who set traps for squirrels on his estate in Shropshire and then gleefully posed for photos with the dead animals. He is the man who lectured Africans about the need to protect elephants, while his department sanctioned the destruction of protected buzzard nests to protect pheasants reared for game shooting.

In his two year tenure in charge of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs he tried but failed to block EU plans to ban neonicotinoid pesticides, widely held to be responsible for devastating bees and other pollinators.
He watered down Natural England’s call for new Marine Conservation Zones.  This wide reaching consultation was set up by his own department at a cost of £8 million to look at safeguarding England’s marine environment,  but when the results indicated 127 different conservation areas were needed DEFRA announced it would take action on only 31 of them.

Paterson was the man in charge of farming who led a personal crusade in the face of public opinion to legalise GMOs. He even reneged on a deal struck with the Scottish government to represent their separate and opposite view at EU meetings.  But then he is also the minister who tried to dismiss the horse meat scandal as a simple issue of mislabeling rather than public safety, missing the point that if you don’t actually know what’s in your food you cannot possibly say it’s safe to eat!

He is the climate change denier who slashed 550 jobs at the Environment Agency dealing with flood prevention, and then presided over the worst floods in a generation in the winter of 2014. He even came in for criticism by the NFU for being too glib about the effects of global warming after suggesting a longer growing season might be good for UK agriculture.

There is barely a corner of Britain’s natural environment or food industry that has not been touched by this most appalling Secretary of State.   The wonder is that Cameron left him in the post for so long.

Paterson might reflect with some sense of irony that he and other big beasts of the party such as Gove, Clarke and Hague have all been culled to improve the electoral health of the Tory herd.   Instead his friends have been calling it a victory for the animal rights brigade.  He has left warning that he will not go quietly and will continue to voice his beliefs from the backbenches, but what of his replacement?

Liz Truss does not come from a farming background and unlike Paterson, or his former Under Secretary Richard Benyon, she does not own a country estate, however she does represent a rural constituency in South West Norfolk.

The suspicion will hang over her until she proves otherwise that her promotion owes more to being young and female than any special aptitude for the job.  In the past she has been a keen supporter of the badger cull, but there is little other evidence to indicate what kind of Environment Secretary she will be.  Time alone will tell, but it is hard to believe she could be any worse than her predecessor!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Why Cameron's CAP doesn't sit comfortably on Scottish heads

David Cameron - Proud of his Scottish Heritage
Unlike many in his party, David Cameron is a keen supporter of the Union.  The Tories have hardly had a sniff in Scotland since Margaret Thatcher did so much to alienate even affluent or aspirational Scots.  Consequently, there are those in the Conservative Party who would not shed any tears if Scotland voted to go its own way in September’s referendum, but the Prime Minister is not one of them.

Partly no doubt he is aware of his own place in history.  He does not want to be remembered as the PM who lost Scotland?  Perhaps the fact that his own great grandfather was once a hill farmer near Inverness plays a part.  But more than any of that, he just has a genuine and deeply ingrained sense of Britishness, of Britain’s shared history, culture and traditions.

This is the reason that he has largely kept himself out of the debate.  He is well aware of how a southern, public school educated Conservative would go down north of the border, and particularly how Scotland’s redoubtable First Minister, Alex Salmond, could make political capital with that.  His one significant contribution was an impassioned plea delivered from The Olympic Park in London last February.  Speaking from the outside to the people of Scotland he said as emphatically as he could, “We want you to stay!”  He later revealed that his aides had tried to steer him off the subject, but he said, “I care far too much" about preventing the UK from being "torn apart" to stay out of the debate.

Ironic then that the Cameron Government’s handling of agriculture might turn out to be the issue which tilts Scotland toward a Yes vote.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is a huge and unwieldy edifice.  Although reduced from its heyday in the 1970s when it accounted for 71% of the community’s expenditure it still makes up a whopping 39%, making it by some measure the largest of the EU’s initiatives.  No longer concerned exclusively with securing food production the CAP now includes targets for environmental protection, social cohesion and regional regeneration across the 28 member states.  Everyone agrees it needs to be reformed.  But equally everyone has their own differing notions of what needs to change and how it should be done.  Unsurprisingly then reforms take a long time to agree and implement.  They more or less come in ten year cycles with the latest version designed to cover the period from 2014 to 2020.

Negotiations were intense and often fraught, but the final deal, seen as a victory for the reformers, saw a 3% reduction in overall CAP spending from the Commission’s original proposal, translating to a 13% real-terms reduction in payments to farmers across the continent.  Payments are made in two so-called Pillars.

Pillar 1, The Single Farm Payment, is based on the number of hectares in stewardship.  This represents a shift away from the old measure of production.  Within Pillar 1 there is a commitment that by 2019 no member state should receive less than an averaged rate of €196 per hectare.

Pillar 2 is the Rural Development Programme designed to give additional help to areas with special needs.  Officially the calculations for the breakdown of the rural development budget between member states is based on a combination of past performance and 'objective criteria' such as area of farm land or number of farms.  In reality it is much more opaque than that, and several member states were able to negotiate additional funding.

The allocations from both Pillars are paid to national governments to distribute internally.  The UK Government’s allocation, to be further divided between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, amounts to €3.549 billion in 2014, rising to €3.592 billion in 2019 under Pillar 1. Critically, this figure includes a “convergence uplift” because UK farm receipts per hectare fall below 90% of the community average.  Under Pillar 2 the UK will receive €2.580 billion for the period 2014 – 2020.

To complicate matters further, member states were given some ‘pillar to pillar flexibility’.  In most cases this means they can transfer up to 15% of the money from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2, or vice versa. The Commission had to receive notification of any proposed reallocations by 31 December last year.

The Scottish Government, and the Edinburgh Parliament, argued that the whole of the UK’s uplift payment should go to Scotland.  The rationale being that it was only Scotland’s very low per hectare rate that brings the UK as a whole below the EU’s 90 per cent threshold. Scotland’s average rate is only around 45 per cent of the EU average, think of those huge upland hill farms.  By comparison, England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s rates are either at or above the EU average.

Instead, the UK Government decided to pro-rata the Uplift payment among each of the receiving nations.  Accordingly Scotland will get only 16% of this uplift.

The SNP and the Vote Yes campaign have naturally painted this as a direct loss to Scottish farmers of €187m.

To make matters worse, after absorbing the 13% real terms cut to direct Pillar 1 payments, the average per hectare rate in Scotland will drop to around €128 per hectare by 2019, forecast to be the lowest in the EU.  Of course Alex Salmond can rightly claim that by the EU’s own rules, if Scotland were a member state and not merely a region, it would have to receive no less that €196 per hectare. In other words Scottish farmers are paying €68 per hectare for the privilege of being in the UK.

Pillar 2 payments fare no better.  Here the UK government has decided to retain internal allocations based on historical patterns.  Scotland will receive 18.5% of the total, around €477.8m.  But again on a per hectare basis that puts them at a miserly €12 per hectare.  Compare that with the allocation to the EU’s newest member, Croatia, whose Pillar 2 allocation works out at €250 per hectare.

Ordinarily much of this detail would go unnoticed by the mass of the population, but not this year, not with financial comparisons between Scotland and her southern neighbour very much at the heart of the referendum campaign.
Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister

“Tories have handed Scotland worst deal in Europe” howls the SNP website this week.  ”The Tories in Westminster…have handed Scotland the worst CAP deal in Europe and negotiated Scotland to the bottom of the CAP funding league tables.” 

Scottish farmers do have a case.  If the CAP serves any purpose then it should be to support struggling farmers in economically disadvantaged regions of Europe.  It was within the powers of the Westminster Government to bring about a fairer distribution of CAP money in Scotland, but for now it looks like a huge gift to the Yes campaign.

It will be ironic if David Cameron, the great grandson of a Scottish farmer, should go down in history as the prime Minster who lost Scotland because of his government’s agricultural policy.  

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why I like JD Wetherspoon's

I like Wetherspoons. There. I’ve said it!  For many years my attitude to this pubco has ranged between one of sneering superiority to downright hostility, but the time has come to say I was wrong.

Let’s begin by acknowledging there’s good reason to be wary of this behemoth.  I used to say that JD Wetherspoon was to the pub trade what Tesco was to retailing.  At the last count there were over 800 branches and new ones open all the time. Wetherspoon’s pubs tend to be huge, typically carved out of old banks or industrial premises.  Inside they are formulaic, somewhere between of a sort of stylised London bar and a gentlemen’s club, but unquestionably faux. They use their scale to get cheap prices from their suppliers and this allows them to undercut small independent retailers. And it seems there is no segment of the hospitality market they won’t attempt to tap.  In the morning the Wetherspoon is  a greasy spoon , selling fried breakfasts; by day it’s a coffee bar.  Hot meals are served all day and by night they offer a range of drinks from real ales to cocktails in jugs.

I grew up in a little market town with over thirty pubs.  Many were small traditional drinking dens, and several of them struggled to survive.  When Wetherspoon’s first applied for a licence in the town I lined up with the local landlords to oppose the application.

However, that very breadth is a weakness. Wetherspoons are a jack of all trades and predictably much of what they offer is somewhat second rate.  To be honest breakfast is probably better in your high street cafĂ©. Wetherspoon’s boast that on Thursday night they are the nation’s biggest curry house, but the food isn’t a patch on the local tandoori.  Their marketing literature calls them “The posh pub company”.  They are not!
Judged by the guiding principals of this blog, the company does not appear to score very highly.  Their food is not seasonal or local.  The same menu is available from Penzance to Peterhead with only a couple of regional variations listed as “Scottish Classics”*, and most of it is not even cooked locally! Apart from steaks and items that go in the deep fat fryer, all the food is precooked and delivered ready chilled.  A delivery truck brings everything for the following week in one drop straight from the central depot.  The system of regular ‘clubs’, Steak Club on Tuesday, Fish Friday and so on, is really a series of cleverly presented price promotions which gives them a high degree of certainty about future sales for the week ahead.

OK,  so what’s to like?

Well for a start I like their opening hours.  The doors open daily at 8.30 and they are open until midnight five days a week, one a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.  And they serve food (and coffee), until 11.00 p.m.  Having lived in the Far East where business is conducted 24x7, it drives me mad to find so many British pubs close their kitchens at 9.00p.m. or even 8.30.

Wetherspoon’s is family friendly by design. At 5.00 o’clock each evening my local Wetherspoon’s, The Joseph Morton, resembles nothing more than a giant children’s tea party.  To be honest, I give the place a wide berth, but better that than feed children’s addiction for McDonalds.  My own kids are adults these days but I well remember being turned away from pubs, or crammed in to dingy ‘family rooms’  when looking for somewhere to eat.  Back then a local Wetherspoon’s would have been a godsend.

Plus a side affect of this is that they are places that women of all ages are comfortable to go into for a coffee or a glass of wine.  That’s not true of all bars in the UK.

And I like the company’s ethical stance.

For many firms Corporate Social Responsibility is little more than a few well chosen platitudes on the company’s web site. But Wetherspoon’s  delivers. CSR is not about eye catching acts of heroism.  It’s about doing the right thing in small ways consistently throughout your business.

Wetherspoon’s build long term relationships with their suppliers and set ethical standards for them to achieve. They buy British when possible. All their beef and pork is sourced from Britain and Ireland.  Their chicken and eggs are all British and free-range.  Their fish comes from sustainable fisheries in Britain and Iceland.  their Lavazza coffee is certified by the Rainforest Alliance

They recycle.  In a ground -breaking innovation, the same trucks that deliver the food from the national distribution centre in Daventry, handle the reverse logistics of aluminium cans and packaging materials which are taken back to the company’s own recycling centre co-located there.  Last year, according to the website, the centre processed 5,000 tonnes of cardboard and paper, 2500 tonnes of cooking oil, 400 tonnes of plastic, and 177 tonnes of steel.  Glass bottles are recycled in partnership with suppliers.  Last year over 12,800 tonnes of glass was recycled.

Wetherspoon works with Carbon Statement to obtain an independently audited weekly report for each of their pubs.  This allows them to work toward their Carbon Reduction Commitment as part of the UK government scheme.

They are also good to their staff.  Unlike other pubcos such as Punch Taverns, which seem to serve no purpose but to cream profit off the top and drive hard working publicans to penury, Wetherspoon runs a national training scheme for both kitchen and front of house staff. The company prefers to promote from within its own ranks.  For the past two years this has been recognised by the CRF Institute which has voted the company one of Britain’s Best Employers.  That’s quite an accolade in an industry which is known for paying minimum wage and hiring and firing low skilled workers.

As an ale drinker, I love the fact that Wetherspoon’s supports Britain’s independent brewers.  In addition to resident ales such as Adnam’s Broadside or Fuller’s London Pride, they all feature regular guest ales. One of the establishments that I know best personally is the Towan Blystra in Newquay.  They normally have eight beers on hand pump, in addition to Guinness, eight lagers and three draft ciders.  And they are all well kept and well served.  The company regularly partners with craft brewers to produce special edition ales exclusively available in Wetherspoon’s pubs.  This wins them accreditation both from from CAMRA and Cask Marque.

Of course the one word which is always attached to Wetherspoon’s is ‘cheap’.  There’s no getting around it, whether you want to take the family out for dinner or enjoy a couple of drinks, this place is a cheap option.

Now I am not a fan of cheap food per se.  Cheap food often comes at a high cost to the environment, to animals and to humans working in production or distribution.  But the way JD does it, with long term relationships with identifiable partners, seems okay.  If the web site is to be believed, many of these partners are small, family run businesses, and as mentioned previously Wetherspoon’s use their influence to ensure minimum standards of ethical practice across the supply chain.

The result is hundreds of frankly unbeatable prices: a pint of beer for under £2; double up any gin, vodka or whisky for an extra £1; a burger and chips for £4.39; curry, served with rice, naan bread, poppadum and chutney for £6.49, and that includes a free pint of beer! And so on and on.  The food snob in me says you get what you pay for, and it’s true the food is not fancy.  But its main sin is to be mass produced and ‘cooked’ by advanced microwave technicians, nothing worse.  Frankly in the current economic climate, when nearly a million Britons regularly depend on food banks, there is a place for JD Wetherspoon and his cheap meals.

And what of poor local businesses struggling to compete?  Well as I have alluded to repeatedly, Wetherspoon’s is not perfect. Local firms have many advantages if they stop and think about it, and they really should not be competing solely on price anyway.

One thousand pubs close and disappear annually in Britain. Drinking habits change and the licensed trade needs to move with the times.  I was wrong to oppose Wetherspoon’s licence back in my old market town.  Dingy, smoke filled  little tap rooms selling pints of mild to old men playing shove ha’penny might sound picturesque but my friends and I never went there.  The truth is those pubs were dead already and frankly good riddance!  They were part of an old disappearing Britain. Wetherspoon’s may not be the future but they very much chime with the present.  They have hit upon a formula which works.  The business is successful, their pubs fulfill a market need and the evidence is that people seem to like them.  Alright so Wetherspoon’s  bars aren’t your traditional old British pubs with jugs of foaming ale, inglenook fireplace and home cooked meals.  They aren’t gastro pubs either, but they are alright.  Is there a place in our town centres for a basic, well run bar offering cheap food and cheap drinks? A place where you can order a cappuccino at 11.00 p.m. or a caipirinha without being laughed at?  Absolutely there is.

See you in ‘Spoon’s!

*Welsh and Northern Irish Classics also exist.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Where's The Beef?

So you always buy free range chicken and you make a point of selecting outdoor reared pork.  Looked at from any angle naturally produced meat is better for the environment, creates higher standards of animal welfare and produces safer, more nutritious food.  But beef is beef right?  After all Cows eat grass don’t they?  We have all seen them cheerfully grazing in fields of lush pasture or lying contentedly chewing the cud in the shade of an old sycamore tree.  Surely beef is one meat that is almost by definition ‘free-range’?

Well yes and no.  In most of Europe open grazing is still overwhelmingly the model used for beef production.  But in North America 95% of beef is produced using an intensive farming system called a ‘feed-lot’.    Typically cattle are pastured until they reach their ‘entry weight’, about 300kg.  This occurs shortly after weaning at anything from 6 to 12 months.  At this point they are moved to a confined animal feeding operation known as a CAFO or more colloquially a feed-lot.

Basically that means a pen containing dozens, hundreds or even thousands of cattle.  Here they are fed a specialised, high calorie diet of mainly grain, but with vitamins, minerals and a regulated dosage of growth hormones included.  This diet causes the beast to deposit fat which gives a desirable marbled character to the beef, but above all the animal gains weight.  In only three or four months in the feed lot cattle will add an extra 180kg, greatly increasing their value on the fat stock market.  This system produces the greatest quantity of beef in the shortest possible time, but there are consequences

First of all the beats are kept in high density pens, knee deep in mud and their own effluent without sight of grass. So forget those bucolic images of happy grazing cows.

In the feed-lot they are fed grain, lots of it.  A diet of maize, barley, soya beans or other grain help the beasts to gain up to three pounds (1.5kg) per day.  But since it takes roughly seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef that adds up to an awful lot of grain.  And guess where that grain comes from?  Increasingly it is imported from developing nations. Often it is grown on virgin land cleared from primal forest or bush.  Next time you hear a statistic that an area of rainforest the size of Belgium is being lost every year, remember all those burgers you ate last year.

So it’s bad for the cows and bad for the planet but wait, it’s also bad for you.

Corn fed beef is much fattier than grass fed beef, and therefore more calorific.  On a 6oz steak the difference is around 100 calories.  Since the average American consumes 67lbs of beef each year, that adds up to a whopping 18,000 calories per year.

Grass is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.  Omega 3s are essential for healthy bodily function and cannot be synthesized.  That is they only come from our diet.  Grass fed beef contains up to four times more Omega 3 fatty acids than grain fed beef.

On the other hand a high ratio of Omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3 is linked with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, obesity, and autoimmune disorders.  Ideally the ratio should be no more than 4 to 1.  In grass fed beef it is typically 2 to 1, but in corn fed meat that rises to around 14 to 1.

I could go on.  Grass fed, as opposed to corn fed beef, is much richer in Essential B and E vitamins, in beta -carotene, in minerals including magnesium, calcium, potassium and in health giving “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLAs, and more.  But you get the point.

So why do I care?  What exactly, if you will pardon the expression, is my beef?  Here in the EU we don’t import much beef from the USA .  All those growth hormones and antibiotics used in American feed-lots are banned in Europe in meat for human consumption.

Well to my surprise, only a few miles from my current home in Louth, Lincolnshire, there is one enterprising farmer who is adopting the American feed-lot system for beef production right here in the UK.  On a disused air field at Manby, behind high walls of straw bales (no planning consent required) almost 3,000 head of cattle are being fattened up as we speak.

Local residents have complained about the ‘foul stench’ and worry about the impact all that effluent is having on the local water table.  (The area is prone to flooding.)  East Lindsey District Council admit they have had dozens of complaints.

The animal welfare charity, Compassion in World Farming, which campaigns against factory farming,  has called for a thorough investigation of the site claiming that the animals have nowhere dry to lie down..

But it seems there is nothing illegal about keeping cows this way, or selling the beef produced there.  Responding to a BBC reporter, the owner pointed out that they are regularly inspected by DEFRA, the Trading Standards Authority and others, even including the Red Tractor certification authority.

I have nothing against the individual farmer, who has recently applied for planning consent for a large expansion of the feed-lot.  But surely this kind of factory farming is not the way we want European agriculture to develop?

At the very least consumers should be made aware of what kind of beef they are getting.  The evidence shows that, when given a choice, a significant proportion of consumers choose free-range produce from farms that adopt high standards of animal welfare.  But as things stand there is no way to tell exactly where your steak came from.

That is why I have started this E-Petition to demand that factory farmed beef is labeled for what it is, and to let producers identify free-range beef in the same way that chicken or eggs are classified.  Please sign it if you agree and pass it on.  Consumer power only works with the free flow of information.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

A Tale of Good Cheer for Christmas

This Christmas I have been enjoying a wonderful range of speciality ales brewed for the festive season.  Seasonal Winter warmers have long been a feature of the UK beerscape, but I don’t ever remember the range and diversity on offer this year.  With original names such as Elves Bells, Tinsel Toes, Santa’s Ale and Festivity, they range from crisp light ales to deep Irish reds and strong dark milds.  But the year end is traditionally a time for reflection and I have been drinking long enough to know that it wasn’t always like this.

British cask ale is a unique product.  Good beers are made elsewhere in the world, but there is nothing that really compares for character or complexity with a pint of well kept, cask conditioned ale pulled straight from the wood.  It seems incredible now, but just under forty yeas ago the very existence of this drink was under threat.

When I started going in to pubs the British beer market was in a sorry state.  Years of consolidation in the brewing industry had reduced literally thousands of small family brewers to a few dozen companies.  When I was seventeen I could name every active brewing company in Britain, and the market was entirely dominated by the so called “big six”: Whitbread; Allied Lyons; Bass; Watney, Mann & Truman, owned by the huge Grand Metropolitan Group; John Courage, part of Imperial Tobacco; and Scottish & Newcastle Breweries.  These giant conglomerates had swallowed up nearly all of Britain’s independent breweries.  In some cases well known brands survived after acquisition, but what the big six really wanted was the distribution network, the estates of so called ‘tied houses’ that each brewer owned.  In most cases after acquisition the brewery would be closed and, at best, production would be moved to a large national brewery.  More often than not the independent brewers’ own brands simply ceased to exist, because the conglomerates preferred to put all their marketing weight behind a small number of super brands that could be promoted nationally, or even internationally.

These companies were not interested in taste, character or tradition.  Their business demanded volume sales, rapid throughput and efficiency.  Cask ale is a craft product.  The beer continues to ferment in the barrel which is what gives it its unique appeal.  But this means that it takes extra days after barreling to reach maturity, and then yet more time to settle after transportation to the pub.  It can be easily spoiled by a landlord who doesn’t know how to keep it.  I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been served a pint of foul-tasting, cloudy bilge water with the words. ‘it’s supposed to look like that, it’s real ale’.  Furthermore it has a limited shelf life, (that continuing fermentation again), and that also means that it doesn’t travel overseas.

All of these issues were deeply problematic to the big six.  Their response was pasteurisation.  In the sixties the big brewers started brewing cold, fizzy drinks: lagers, often brewed under licence from foreign brewers, and so called ‘keg beers’, dark beers like traditional ales, but filtered, pasteurised and chilled.  These products got around the problems of keeping real ales, they allowed the brewers to focus advertising and promotion on mega brands, and conveniently they appealed to a younger demographic.  Let’s just say they were less of a jump from childhood drinks like cola or lemonade.

 In those days beer was one of the most advertised products on British television, and even today the brands and their advertising slogans will be remembered by anyone who lived through that era. Worthington E, 'the pint that satisfies'; Courage Tavern, 'what your right arm’s for'; Double Diamond 'works wonders!';  Whitbread Tankard, 'helps you excel!'; and the execrable  Watney’s Red Barrel.  That last one's not a slogan, just my own description.  For me the most memorable was Whitbread's 'Big head Trophy Bitter, the pint that thinks it’s a quart', the advertisers seemingly making a virtue out of the fact that many publicans could not control the new CO2 cylinders, and you often ended up with two glasses of frothy head to get one pint of beer.  Thankfully most of these products no longer exist.

I was fortunate to grow up in a small town with over thirty pubs, all of which continued to serve cask conditioned ales.  At the end of the seventies, I could find 15 or 20 different ales within easy walking distance, still drawn from the barrel in the traditional way.  But other parts of the country were not so lucky.  Independent brewers, where they still existed, were obliged to follow the lead of the big players and introduce their own lagers and keg beers.  These products were made to seem youthful and modern.  It seemed like only a matter of time before cask ale died out altogether.

Then CAMRA came along.  One of the most successful consumer groups ever formed, The CAMpaign for Real Ale, started a fightback.  The organisation’s stated aims are:
·         Protect and improve consumer rights.
·         Promote quality, choice and value for money.
·         Support the public house as a focus of community life.
·         Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries as part of our national heritage and culture.
·         Seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry

The efforts of this group to publicise the plight of traditional ales, and lobby companies and licencing authorities turned the tide.  Brewers were forced by public demand to retain and even expand real ale production.  The very term ‘real ale’ was a CAMRA creation.

Then in 1989, partly as a result of CAMRA campaigning the UK government became involved as The Competition Commission conducted an inquiry into the whole industry.  The commission found that “The demand for a wide variety of bitter, and strong regional tastes and preferences, are important features of the United Kingdom beer industry.”[i]  Further it concluded that the vertical integration of brewing and retailing operations created a complex monopoly which restricted choice, kept wholesale prices unacceptably high and worked to prevent new entrants from taking hold.

Following the recommendations of the commission, the Secretary of State ordered the break up of this cosy system.  Thousands of pubs were sold off by the brewers in to specialist pub companies, Pubcos for short, such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns.  These companies were then free to source their beer wherever they liked.
Since then the market has changed dramatically with the fortunes of brewers and retailers headed in opposite directions.   Pubs have had to evolve rapidly to changes in the market such as national smoking bans, enforcement of drink-driving laws and a growing awareness of health issues, all of which mean that as a nation we drink less beer.  Supermarkets now take a significant share of drinks sales.  Food has taken up much of the space vacated, with the gastro-pub a welcome new phenomenon especially in rural areas.  But many publicans live on incomes well below the national average and overwhelmingly they  blame the pubcos for taking a short term view, simply raking off profits from hard working tenants while offering little in return[ii].

In recent years, The Competition Commission has again been looking at practices within the retail distribution of beer, but a walk through any town centre will show that the traditional British pub is under threat.  Many simply enter a slow decline into shabbiness like an OAP desperately trying to survive on an inadequate pension.  Others turn to a range of stratagems to survive including loud music, karaoke or wall-to-wall sports TV. But for every new customer that these features attract, another one is lost.  Nationally Britain loses around 1000 pubs each year, and this situation has pertained now for several years.

In contrast, the brewing industry is healthier than at any time in almost 100 years.  The big six continued to consolidate and today there is a big four who still brew 8 out of every 10 pints sold.  The UK is not immune to global trends and bland global products such as Carlsberg, Heineken or Stella Artois dominate here as elsewhere.  But according to CAMRA[iii], there are now 1,147 different breweries operating in the UK, more than at any time since 1927 and way too many for me to try and memorise.   Of these, 187 have opened in the last 12 months alone.  Together they produce over 5,200 different beers.  This explosion of new entrants has brought a wonderful array of new and different beers, the vast majority of them real ales.  Many are microbrewers supplying only a small number of local outlets.  Alongside traditional bitters, milds and porters they experiment with different styles, using imported hop varieties and other flavours such as citrus, spice or even coffee.  This is not an industry desperately struggling to keep traditional methods and products alive in the face of relentless progress.  It's a confident, vibrant sector reinventing itself for the new century, producing new products in the traditional way.

Microbrewers still only account for a tiny proportion of overall beer sales.  But the British beer drinker has never had such an interesting and diverse range of quality ales to choose from and the immediate future looks secure. To an old campaigner like myself that is something to celebrate.

[i] The Supply of Beer: A report on the supply of beer for retail sale in the United Kingdom
[ii] Special Report from Parliamentary Committee

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Not with a bang but with a kerching!

For various reasons I have recently been staying in the Lincolnshire town of Louth. In some ways Lincolnshire is about twenty years behind the rest of the UK.  It’s a rural county with no major cities but many, widely scattered market towns.  The main road and rail transport routes bypass the county entirely.

For these reasons Louth retains its character as a farming centre, rustic and unhurried. In 2012 the town was voted Britain’s Favourite Market Town by viewers of the BBC’s Countryfile, beating celebrated beauty spots including Ludlow, Perth and Stamford.  Markets are held in the town three days a week.  Many of the town’s buildings clearly show signs of their agricultural origins as wool merchants, seed dealers, maltings or the old corn exchange.  There is a working cattle market in the town and many of the town pubs have good rustic names: The Brown Cow, The Golden Fleece or The Miller’s Daughter.

The town centre is noted for the large number of independent retailers.  There are several family businesses including bakers, green grocers, a large number of butchers, and a specialist cheese shop. The lobby group, Keep Louth Special, attributes this to the absence of a major supermarket in the town.  There is a small branch of Morrisons and a similarly sized Co-Op, but the town is extremely unusual these days in not having a large supermarket either in the town or on an edge-of-town site.

That state of equilibrium is about to be challenged.  This week, East Lindsey District Council, which owns the cattle market, has announced its intention to close the existing facility and move to an out-of-town location.  They have invited sealed bids for the multi-acre site, and all of the big four food retailers have declared an interest in acquiring the property.

 Keep Louth Special, and many of the town’s existing traders are girding their loins for battle and preparing to fight any application to build a new supermarket.  They claim that a major supermarket in the town would be a disaster, forcing many local businesses to close and irreversibly altering the character of the town.

But not everyone feels the same way.  Many people would welcome a major retailer in the town.  They point out that most of the town’s residents already travel the 25km to Grimsby to do their main food shopping.  They want to see the same choice and low prices available closer to home.  The scene is set for a major planning battle.

My guess is the cattle market site will be sold and it will be bought by one of the big four supermarkets.  Money talks, and the funds raised will allow the council to keep council tax rises down.  In a couple of years there will be a supermarket on the site and most of the townsfolk will use it.  And what will be the impact on Louth’s  small retailers?

 I would like to believe that the changes will only be positive.  Perhaps the presence of a large supermarket will enhance the town as a retail destination.  Maybe there will be a win win and the local retailers will share in the increased size of the pie.  But I doubt it.

I fear that many small businesses will be tilted into deficit.  I suspect that several existing businesses will turn out to be surprisingly fragile and the arrival of a new major competitor will prove to be the difference between survival and closure.  They will be replaced by charity shops and discount stores and some will be boarded up for years.  Shoppers will actually see choice and service decline.  There will be a net loss of wealth to the town.  Research shows that a shockingly small percentage of money spent in a national supermarket stays within the local economy.  There will be a loss of vigour in the town centre.  Even the district council will notice the difference in receipts from business rates. It has already happened all over the county.

I am tempted to remember the words of Paul Weller.  “The public gets what the public wants.”  But I doubt if many people would actually choose the future that I have foretold.   The trouble s that most people will take a short term view.  They will look forward to lower prices, two-for-one offers and extra club card points. Probably it’s more accurate to say simply that as a society we get the towns we deserve!