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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
December 17, 2009



The Beer Orders and me

I was there, you know. First in the queue, too. Although that was a bit lucky because they opened a new window just as I arrived at the HMSO bookshop in Holborn to pick up a copy, hot off the press, of the Monopolies & Mergers Commission report into the tied house system.

That was in March 1989. After nine months painful gestation the report gave birth to the Beer Orders, which are exactly 20 years old this weekend. The pub trade was never the same again.

When the MMC report came out I was working on the Morning Advertiser, then a daily newspaper, which was hard for people to believe then, let alone now. So we had to plough through 500 A4 pages of text, work out what it all meant, write it up, lay it out and get it to press by a 6pm deadline.

Exciting, in its way, and the clearest sign that the pub trade had become a very different industry to the one I had started writing about only a few years before.

I had first joined the MA at the end of 1984 – and left about 15 months later.  I had realised by then that my second year on the paper was going to be very much like the first, and far too boring to keep a precocious eight-year-old interested (hrumph…).

A year later I was lured back to cover for a reporter on maternity leave – and while I was there the pub industry started to change.

It wasn’t the Beer Orders but the launch of Grand Metropolitan’s Inntrepreneur lease, in 1988, that was the straw in the wind. It brought a new kind of relationship between brewer and tenant, a new kind of publican and a new attitude to pubs as commercial enterprises.

Grand Met had recognised that its sprawling pub estate was a reservoir of untapped profitability. Tenants complained about their landlords even then, of course, but there was little incentive for them to develop their business to its full potential, and little incentive for the brewer, either, as long as the beer sales guaranteed by their tied estates filled the mash tuns.

The Inntrepreneur lease has gone down in history as a thoroughly bad deal for the licensees who signed up to it, but it got the industry thinking differently and marked the point at which pubs entered a neoliberal world where every inch of trading area had to pay its way.

It meant a new breed of publican too, forced, often reluctantly, into the entrepreneurship required to make the business model work.

The Beer Orders, by pushing at the fracture between production and retailing the Inntrepreneur lease implied, accelerated industry-wide change – change that has never stopped.

And that’s why I’m still here writing about pubs. And doing work for the Morning Advertiser again, too. It’s a funny old game. But it’s not boring.

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