Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 1997

* Local Colour, National Bland *

Commentators often complain that shopping centres across Britain are becoming more and more alike, with the high street in every big town featuring the same range of well-known national chain stores, resulting in a steady encroachment of bland uniformity at the expense of local individuality.

Now much the same seems to be happening to pubs. You could well now find in the centre of any major town, say, a Wetherspoon's, a Yates's, a Scruffy Murphy's, a Firkin, a Hogshead and a Tap & Spile, which, while maybe perfectly decent establishments in themselves, are scarcely any different from those in some other place two hundred miles away. On the retail park at the edge of any town there may be a spanking new Brewer's Fayre to go with the B&Q shed and the drive-thru McDonalds.

Even in those pubs which are not being subjected to standardised themes, a steady process of homogenisation is taking place. Nowadays, the national brewers tend to offer much the same beer range all over the country. Where once Allied Domecq (or whatever they're called this week) might have given you Ansells, Ind Coope, Halls or Friary Meux, now it's likely to be Tetley's whether you're in Plymouth or Aberdeen. It's just the same with Boddingtons for Whitbread, Worthington for Bass and Theakstons for S & N. Several major independent breweries which once had large tied estates, such as Matthew Brown, Home and Devenish, have sold out to the nationals or to pub chains and have either disappeared off the face of the earth or remain only in the life-after-death of badge brewing.

Once, it could often be a rewarding experience when visiting a town some distance away to be able to sample distinctive local beers which were not available at home - such as Wem in Shrewsbury or Home and Shipstone in Nottingham. Today, it's getting ever harder to find anything much different. The citizens of Shrewsbury and Nottingham can no doubt today drink a wider selection of beers than they could twenty years ago. However, a far greater proportion of the pints drunk will be bland national brews rather than tasty local ones. And how real is the choice anyway when it's hardly any different from that available anywhere else in the country? Even the local ten-beer alehouses will probably, over time, feature much the same beers as those in your own home town.

We may tend to take for granted the concentrations of Robinson's pubs in Stockport, Holt's in Eccles and Lees' in Middleton, but, looking at the pub scene across the country, they are something rather special. To have a substantial number of pubs which have their own house style and serve distinctive beers from a local independent brewer greatly adds to a town's individual character, something which, regrettably, is becoming increasingly rare.

* A Tide of Sarsaparilla? *

A couple of years ago, I ran into a bit of flak for daring to suggest that, on a range of drink-related issues, that Labour might be less sympathetic than the Conservatives to the interests of pubgoers and licensees. Not wanting to get into that kind of hot water again, in the wake of the general election result, I'll say no more than that I have a strong suspicion that my suggestions may turn out to be true - even taking into account Labour's promised introduction of universal full measures, something always strongly supported by this column. I sincerely hope I'm proved wrong, and of course every case will be judged strictly on its merits. However, if Labour policies do prove to be detrimental to pubs and drinkers, then rest assured I won't hold back on saying "I told you so".

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