With a number of recent pub closures in Doncaster, such as the Corporation Taps, the issue of the loss of our inns is back in the headlines.
Beer campaigner CAMRA joined three well known local licencees at the latest Doncaster Free Press round table, held at The Poacher, in Rossington, to discuss the problems our pubs are facing and how they can thrive.
Our panel was Alison Harper, licensee, The Poacher; Jackie Bailey, licensee, the Magdalen, Masons, Rum Rooms, and, Ian Blaylock, brewer and licensee, the Doncaster Brewery and Tap; and Ian Round, vice chairman, Doncaster CAMRA.
In part one of our report, issues raised included the ‘tied house’ system, restricting tenant licensees to only buying drinks from the pub companies from whom they rent the venue, so the licensee is ‘tied’ to the company for its drinks supply
Free Press community engagement editor David Kessen chaired the discussion.
David Kessen: Are there concerns that Doncaster could lose more pubs in the coming years?
Alison Harper: “Definitely.
Ian Round: “I think there are a few issues. People’s social habits have changed and a lot of people will buy drinks from the supermarket. Its cheap, and they seem to have lost the will to go out and meet the wider community, they’re happier to stay in their houses. I think what pubs need to do, is some of the things Ian is doing .
“They’ve got lots of other things going on at the pub. They’ve got poetry evenings, music turns, quizzes, a book evening, and even a pop up cinema for a while, and it drew people in. Ian has the advantage of not being tied to a pub company so he can do exactly what his customers want, and brews most of his beer himself.
“I think there are so many micropubs springing up because there is no one telling them what to do. I’m not saying all pub companies are villains though.
“Look at the Red Lion, Braithwell. It always had a bit of real ale on. The landlord got it up to six handpumps there and made it a very successful pub. The pub company upped his prices and costs and he decided it was not worth carrying on. When he left no none else took it on, and its not a pub any more. It is certainly a worry that we could lose more.”
Jackie Bailey: “I think its a worry for business in general, and Doncaster is one of the places that is trying very hard to think outside the box and re-invent itself. Its how many people can survive that transitional period really. I don’t think its just about pubs, its about footfall, it’s about people coming out and socialising.”
Ian Blaylock: “Doncaster is a really difficult trading environment. There are people selling into to the likes of Leeds, Sheffield, York, where there is a young student economy going out and spending on partying. Doncaster is a different environment. The entire country has lost the high street, and the high street dynamic. Its not just the pubs that are suffering.”
JB: “I think the supermarkets, so therefore the Government, have a big part to play in what has happened as far as social drinking is concerned and if they were not allowed to trade the way they do with alcohol it would have a massive upturn on pubs.
AH: “I think if they went back to the old licence hours it would make it more difficult for the supermarkets as they wouldn’t be able to shut the isles down for the few hours that you’re shut, and you’d have more people in the pub for the hours that you’re open. If people are not drinking all day, they can come home, have something to eat, shower, and go out again.”
JB: “People seem to go to the likes of Leeds and York to do afternoon drinking. They get back to Doncaster at 10pm maybe on the last train, and then they’ll go home. What we need is for people to be doing that afternoon spending in Doncaster.”
IB: “For places that offer something different in Doncaster that engages my demographic, we’re very limited for that, The tied house system doesn’t help that. You may have certain beers and ciders, but that is all you can get. So the people that use our place are essentially transient because there’s nothing told hold them in the town for the products they’re looking for so they come to us before they get a train, they go the Platform B and get a pint, they get on a train and go to Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, where there is so much more free trade and more variety for them. I think one of the issues is the lack of free trade in Doncaster. I see it from both sides, as a brewer as well.
JB: “We’ve applied for out of tie, and we’re in solicitors negotiations. The amount of money it’s going to cost us is huge. We’ve developed our business a lot with our own finances, so we’ve requested coming out of tie.
AH: “I did a new lease last year, and they wouldn’t entertain free of tie.
JB: “I feel that you can’t make money if you’re tied to every product. The Magdalen is not tied but we haven’t got the facility due to the cooling system in the cellar to put in cask ales, as its too cold. If you want to do something well, you’ve got to make sure your product is very good. We didn’t want to compromise our product so we’re trying to look at other ways of putting cask ales on. We’ve always said if you’re in town you should sell locally, and I think that is something Doncaster is pushing towards
IB: The council seems to be trying to create a better trading environment for smaller local businesses. We find if you walk down Silver Street, there’s an awful lot of younger drinkers who don’t seem to be going out as much. Silver Street doesn’t seem as busy as it used to on an evening.
JB: “That’s where the supermarkets come in. Young people are having their drinks at home and coming into town at 11pm. If we were back to old laws, they wouldn’t be able to do that, as when they came into town you’d be closing.
“I think it worked better when there was a separation between bars, pubs and nightclubs.
“I think you also need to get the balance between competition and saturation right. You’ve got to be prepared for competition, and that’s why you’ve got to think outside the box. We’ve come into the trade later, and we’ve run different businesses, so we’ve definitely thought outside the box because that’s what we used to do. In a town like Doncaster, which is quite small, if someone sees someone doing something well, they’ll think ‘I’ll do that’, and it becomes saturation. We’ve only got so many people coming into town. I’ve asked the council if they have a strategy to bring more people into town, because it is footfall that will make everyone successful..
“We were the only open pub business in the Market Place for four years. Crystals was closed, the Alehouse was closed, the Queens was closed. We had our customers come in but it was hard to draw new customers because there was only one place to go. It is now getting a reputation as a place to go. The Wool Market is opening now and this is where you’re talking about the saturation rather than competition. Should they have built up the footfall before they put a whole load of new bars and food places in one area? I just hope it will bring a lot of new people down to the market place.
AH: “A lot of the young ones now seem to be going out for a night, but not doing Doncaster, or the villages, but going to Leeds or even Liverpool.
JB: “They’ll stay the night maybe, in a hotel?”
AH: “Its taking people out of Doncaster, but Doncaster used to do very well for people coming in. In my younger days we’d get to meet people on a bus trip from Newcastle. Now Newcastle’s on the up. Over the years Newcastle has had an upgrade, so has Liverpool. Leeds is on the up, and in all these cities the people seem to be thinking ‘lets stay here’ and people from Doncaster are going there too.
“Lets hope when Silver Street and Hallgate are done, and the markets opened, that it brings people from other towns back in.
IB: “You need that diversity of offering.”
IR:”Do you find music is a good draw?
JB: “It makes a difference, definitely. When we first came here live music was very generic in the pubs. You knew if you went to the Woolpack, you’d hear rock. We’ve always done acoustics. Now whenever you go into a rock bar, they’ll have acoustics on one weekend. I think that’s changed the dynamic as well. People have to do what they need to do to survive, but I think people have lost identities in the making of it.
“I think it works well when people know where the cask area is, where the rock area is, where the cocktails area is, then you get people moving around. Also, I think there is a concept of Doncaster as rough, but it really isn’t.
IB: “We have people who have at certain times of the year, such as race week, will only come in the afternoon because they’re scared of being in town at night. We live in the outskirts of town and walk through it every morning and every night. People are worried it may not be safe – but its really not like that. It is a safe place.
IR: Silver Street and Hallgate have given Doncaster an image which is not representative.
JB: Silver Street is for young people, there’s no ifs and buts about it. Would university status make a difference?
IB: Possibly. A lot has been said of the planned University Technology College, but that is for 13 to 19 year olds, so that will not make a big difference to pubs.
JB: “We were talking about footfall. Leeds and Sheffield have people who live in their town centres or nearby who have disposable income. We were at a meeting and it was suggested that what we should be looking for is to have companies who will invest in Doncaster to build housing for people who perhaps work in Leeds or Sheffield or York, who could travel from Doncaster to work. It would be people who have disposable income, but then may spend it in Doncaster. I think they should look at that.”
AH: “I think the younger generation coming up now are more interested in real ale. We did a beer festival a few years ago in Rossington and I thought it would be the older people drinking it, but the amount of younger ones trying it was interesting.”.