Crisis-hit pubs are now facing a “catastrophe” that could set Scotland’s relationship with alcohol back decades as drinkers are driven away from bars in favour of their sofas, it has been claimed.
Jeff Ellis, the convener of Fife’s licensing forum and secretary of the Fife Licensed Trade Association (FLTA), said problematic drinkers can be monitored in pubs and consumption can be controlled, unlike at home.
Mr Ellis, who used to run the Bear Tavern in Newburgh, pointed to studies that suggest alcohol consumption has increased during lockdown while home consumption is at its highest ever level and raised concerns that restriction on hostelries will encourage more people to say at home.
“For several years now we in the FLTA have been trying to emphasise the point that on-trade outlets, rather than being part of the problem, are in fact a vital part of the solution,” he said.
“Licensees and their staff have never been better trained, managed and monitored and as a consequence on-trade outlets represent the only safe environment for managed alcohol consumption.
“But tempting the public away from their flat screens and their cases of Tennents was always going to be a struggle.
“Losing all those safe on-trade environments will put Scotland’s efforts back 20 years.”
Mr Ellis also hit out at the arrival of the annual bills for premises licence fees, which he said prompted some “colourful responses” from beleaguered licensees across the region.
It had been hoped that bars, pubs and restaurants might get some sort of respite, due to a loss of income during lockdown.
But Fife Council has pressed ahead with its annual demand for the fee to be paid by the start of next month, which in some cases will cost publicans up to £900.
Mr Ellis pointed out licensees have not been able to make full use of the 2019/20 fee due to lockdown and not only fears many will be unable to pay the levy but also questioned the timing, which coincides with the end of the furlough scheme.
“Many businesses are struggling already and as Autumn and Winter hits us this will get worse as the use of outside areas will be denied them,” he said.
“Our fear is that this will crystallise the situation for many operators, prompting them to put up the shutters for good.
“Unless solutions can be found there are several reasons why such closures will be a catastrophe for Fife and Scotland.”
In response to the concerns raised, Fife Council legal services manager June Barrie said the local authority is in touch with licence trade businesses to offer business support where possible.
On the annual bills, she explained: “The fees relate to the annual fee which a premises licence holder has to pay as a condition of keeping their licence.
“They’ve not increased, and apply to all licensed premises – not just pubs, but also supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants and visitor attractions.
“The fee goes towards the running of the licensing system and the amount paid depends on the rateable value of the premises.
“Regulations dictate that the fee is due on October 1 every year which is why the notices for payment have gone out now.”