I don't think Paul Nuttall had any political agenda when he stated that government should quit hammering pubs with outrageous taxes and onerous handicaps, like the smoking ban. Nuttall's just been re-elected as an MEP for UKIP for another five years and there's very little mileage for him personally, or UKIP, to sound sensible to publicans or their potential customers so far ahead of the General Election (1).
No I think he's simply reflecting the disquiet many of us feel about these closures and yes, exactly the same thing's happening in Scotland as well. Here it continues to wreak havoc with pubs but, even more depressing, it's spread to small country inns and hotels.
Certainly I miss the hotel in Newbigging. It was the only public building in that hamlet; served a superb lunch, excellent coffee, invariably had several bar newspapers to browse and had hard standing where I could park the scooter safely. It closed a couple of years back and has been converted to private accommodation. Same story in Eyemouth with Punch Taverns still trying to lease the Ship Hotel, and Dunbar where the Forth Hotel stands empty and forlorn awaiting redevelopment, while the Rossborough Hotel, also in Dunbar, proved too much of a challenge to its new (post smoking ban) owners. Even North Berwick is not immune; there the 11 room Blenheim House Hotel is available for sale, but only as an hotel. Despite the fact it shut in 2012 and is now close to derelict, the site may not be redeveloped... yet.
However the trend since the smoking ban, certainly in my part of Edinburgh, has been to convert existing pubs into "gastro pubs". Food's the big draw - and that has to be well priced, well cooked, plentiful and served by helpful staff. Get it right and you'll make good money; get it wrong and you're toast - real fast.
That's all well and good, however the dynamics of these gastro places are very different and not in the least appealing. With cooked food served from midday to 9 pm they attract a different crowd until about 9.30 pm. As I don't like the smell of food once I've had my own supper, nor want to meet up with people after 9.30 at night; to me they're akin to a grubby restaurant that happens to have a large bar area. Without a decent, sheltered smoking area they're useless as restaurants and pubs.
It used to be that hard work, long hours and some common sense were the only skills needed to take on a pub. Many redundant coal miners back in the 80's did so knowing full well they wouldn't make a fortune in salaries, but they'd be their own boss and, if they made a real go of it, the goodwill they'd built up would provide them with the capital needed to set themselves up in modest retirement.
Now there are very few indeed who'd give serious thought to buying a pub outright. Even at the prices they charge, you need to shift an awful lot of drinks, coffees, hot snacks and the like to cover your cost of capital, business rates, heating, lighting and maintenance costs just to clear £28,000 a year for yourself and family. Try doing restaurant style food and you've got to have a large and loyal customer base to pay for a full time chef and serving staff.
That doesn't work in hamlets, small villages, nor the deprived areas of most towns and that's one reason they can't find a buyer. The dynamics of pubs and small country hotels have changed. Blame it on cheap booze, zero enthusiasm of banks, cost of petrol, the smoking ban, shed pubs or smoky drinky's. Blame it on whatever you like, the fact is very few pubs retain their unique character - and that, more than anything, was what drew people from nearby areas.
And from a potential investor standpoint there's another, bigger factor to consider. Uncertainty. If they ever pass legislation that you can't smoke in beer gardens, or within 3 meters of a building, or on pavements whilst standing still, then even places with popular beer gardens or smoking areas will be in deep trouble. Add the never ending attempts to restrict alcohol content, hike taxes, make publicans enforce laws they find repugnant and you've got to have a guaranteed, immediate, money making proposition to invest. None of this building up goodwill, just get in there and maximize your short term returns.
The result is good prices are being paid for pubs in high footfall areas, while pubs and country hotels that rely on passing trade or are without a large local population stand empty. If they can be re-developed then there's vastly more profit in tearing them down and slinging up a block of flats.
However Mr. Nuttall seems to understand that all his proposals can do is slow the rot. People who gave up on using pubs didn't all suddenly become recluses. On those rare occasions when it's best to meet someone in a neutral place, I now prefer real restaurants that I know have quick service. Food, chat, screw the coffee and out. If needs, it's back to my place, or theirs for coffee and a fag. If they don't smoke then I'll use the e-fag, which is a big taboo in restaurants and most pubs.
Others have gone their own route, with shed pubs and smokys offering the all important atmosphere as well as drinks that don't cost a fortune. It's a similar story with bingo halls. Those that have gone ain't coming back; now it's easier and just as much fun to play online bingo, solo or with a bunch of mates.
It's not that people have become less sociable, it's just that we socialize in different ways. Skype and social media are fantastic for keeping in touch with friends and I note that those in their late teens to mid twenties seem far more likely to have friends round to their place than meet up in a pub. If they chose to go out in the early hours, then it'll be to a club rather than a stand alone pub.
So yes Mr. Nuttall has both feet firmly planted and he has to be commended because he's done his research and he's seen it first hand in Belgium (as well as France and the Netherlands). The only possibility open to any government that has the will to amend the smoking ban is separate, ventilated smoking rooms. Any politician who says otherwise hasn't read up on the subject, hasn't paid heed to events in the Netherlands regarding small owner-run pubs, and is unfamiliar with FCTC.
These smoking rooms fall into two categories. Those with state of the art air purification units that comply to some amazing standard (and cost a pretty packet). Do that and you can allow staff to serve in them. That's what they have in Italy (2), NYC (3) and some cantons in Switzerland.
The second - and far more popular - is a simple filtration system that's little more than a standard air conditioner. These are far less expensive and is what they have in Holland (4), Belgium (5) and France. With these staff may not enter them, but customers are free go in with their drinks and snacks.
Coincidentally in almost all the countries that allow smoking rooms, they can be installed anywhere. Restaurants, offices, railway stations and airports can - and frequently do - offer that facility. Sure there are restrictions on the minimum size of the premises. The rules vary from country to country, however in the Netherlands they have to be about 450 square feet. Smaller than that and they have to stay non-smoking while larger places can install them, though they should not exceed 50% of the total area of the premises. In practice in Amsterdam many smoking rooms are small and tucked away in places like basements and top floors. Not great for groups, but fine and dandy for solo individuals, even couples.
I have no idea which type of smoking room Mr Nuttall has in mind, however it's encouraging that he should front up and talk sense, even if the next General Election is many months away. It helps dispel some comments I've read, that Mr. Farage is in a majority of one within UKIP. Mr. Nuttall is the Deputy Leader of UKIP, born in 1976, and likely to be around for some time.
On the other hand Mr. Farage is on record as saying that he'd "scrap the smoking ban". He can't do that without pulling the UK out of FCTC. Should he do so then everything associated with FCTC that gives free reign to "tobacco control" would go along with it. Nice thought but very unlikely. My suspicion is, within the context of your average sound bite for the media, "scrap the smoking ban" sounds so much better than "relax the smoking ban". Anyway, this is the article from 2011 that contains the quote (6).
Whatever they decide, the first place to install a compliant smoking room will make an absolute killing and, even if it's in England, I'll be there!
Following their conference, held in Doncaster from 25-27 September, UKIP issued a Policy Statement (7) that, under "Culture", states:
"UKIP will amend the smoking ban to give pubs and clubs the choice to open smoking rooms properly ventilated and separated from non-smoking areas."
"UKIP opposes "plain paper packaging" for tobacco products and minimum pricing of alcohol."
So that sorts any ambiguity there may have been on where UKIP stands on smoking bans. Then there's cutting foreign aid, reducing the BBC licence fee and scrapping HS2, amongst many others, that offer compelling reasons to consider voting for them in May 2015!