Our pubs are facing a deep long term crisis but it’s one that Stormont can help with…

There is a reason why so many of us sincerely looked forward to being back in our local at the end of the latest lockdown. And why so many repetitive photos of pints of stout and favourite corners of bars and snugs have been shared over the past months on social media. It isn’t just the drinking part – many of us have been doing lots of that at home anyway, and in some cases doing too much of it (I’ll come back to that).

Pubs on this island are deeply meaningful places. They are physical spaces, rooted in the streets and history of the villages, towns and neighbourhoods we have grown up and live in. For many of us, they hold an emotional resonance. They are the backdrop to important memories of people and occasions.

They contain faces we might know intimately, or simply recognise in passing. They contain people we don’t know at all, but might come to know, connect with, and even care about. They are part of the fabric of our lives and our communities.

Pubs are not only an important part of our own self-conception, they are critical to the image that we present to the world. Our historic distilleries, traditional pubs and the beer in our taps are a huge part of what we sell to visitors.

Despite all this, our pubs are facing a long-term crisis.

Northern Ireland has by some margin the lowest number of pubs per head of population of any UK region outside London (and the unusually high density of London’s population makes it a bad comparator).  Since 2001, according to data from the House of Commons library, the number of pubs in Northern Ireland has dropped by 36 per cent – an astonishing number.

Pubs here are shutting their doors at a considerably faster rate than anywhere else in the UK or Ireland. In the space of one year, 2019 to 2020, the number of pubs fell by three per cent – again the sharpest fall of all UK regions, and in a year when most UK regions saw the number of operational pubs actually increase. Here we get to the nub of the problem: our unique licensing system means that for all intents and purposes, the number of pubs here can never increase.

There has not been a single new liquor licence created here since prior to the existence of this jurisdiction. Not in 119 years ago to be exact. Why? Because of a Victorian device as odd and alien to modernity as the penny farthing bike or the woollen swimsuit – the so-called ‘Surrender Principle’.

The 1902 Licensing (Ireland) Act was introduced in the belief that Ireland had too many licensed premises, sometimes also undertakers or grocers, and that it would be wise to limit in perpetuity the number of operational licenses.

To this day, for a liquor licence to be granted to one person by a court, another one has to be surrendered. This is why there now exists a market for licenses, a market predicated on the permanent (and increasing) scarcity created by the 1902 law.

This limitation applies to off sale licenses too. In order to open an off licence, or even simply to incorporate an off-licence in a supermarket or convenience store – a pattern clearly observable in NI in recent decades – it is necessary to acquire a liquor license. More often than not, that means buying one off a closing pub, and for obvious economic reasons, it is usually easier to acquire licenses from smaller, rural publicans.

Decisions by individual publicans to sell are entirely reasonable. They are acting on the basis of the incentives the system has created.

But once those pubs go, our system means they are gone from those communities forever.

Though the surrender principle was introduced to the whole island prior to partition, it has evolved differently in the two jurisdictions. Nowadays in the Republic, as with Britain, if a small retailer who wants to sell wine, beer or spirits, can simply apply to the authorities – in the southern instance the National Excise Licence Office; in England and Wales, local authorities.

To understand how the system is working and how it might be improved, I (successfully) moved amendments to the Licensing Bill, which passed the Assembly in June and will shortly receive Royal Assent. In short, the amendments will mandate in law an independent review of the surrender principle, to include possible recommendations. This could mean a range of things: allowing a new category of pub licence in areas of community need; or perhaps ending the link between new off sales licences and existing liquor licences.

It is critical that any change also reflects the interests of existing licensees – many of whom have legitimate financial commitments tied up in the value of existing licences. Any significant change may well require some form of compensation for existing licensees. But that cannot be an excuse to not even review how the current system operates, as some of its defenders have implied.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the Surrender Principle is the only reason for pubs shutting. But what is clear is that the current system is not working. All of the indicators are worse for Northern Ireland than elsewhere. And we need to understand exactly why.

Because most alarmingly, the trends here cannot be reversed. If a license expires or pub closes, it is effectively lost forever. If a pub closes and sells its license to a chain supermarket, there is effectively zero chance of it becoming a pub again.

This isn’t just about drinking. We haven’t missed pints in our local purely for the drinking. Pubs are community hubs, incubators of local musical talent and social contact points that stave off loneliness.

And that’s not the only public health benefit: drinking in pubs is by definition more regulated and controlled than drinking at home – which many of us have been doing to excess during the pandemic.

Pubs are part of the fabric of my life, of life on this island, and across these islands. I want this review to work in the interests of small publicans.  I want it to create a better climate for pubs so that fewer are forced to shut, and that the barriers to entry for newcomers are not so impossibly high.

Completing this review and implementing any recommendations will be the work of years, not months. And to ensure we have better information on pub numbers generally I successfully tabled a separate amendment requiring annual publication on the numbers of operational pub licences in Northern Ireland (at the minute the information we have is woefully collated and barely available).

If you care about not just pints, but about pubs and what they mean to our people, communities and culture, do get involved when the review launches in the coming year.  Let’s not wait for last orders on our pubs before doing something.