The licensed trade is suffering its fair share of hardship at the moment with pubs closing, trade down and costs rising.
Plymouth solicitor Andrew Lugger, who specialises in licensing matters, says he’s been busier than ever working for landlords determined to keep going.
“I’ve been doing a lot more licensing work than I have in years for pubs, restaurants and hotels looking for a variation in their license,” says Andrew, a partner at Plymouth-based Curtis Whiteford Crocker. “Lots and lots of licensed premises are up for sale but some landlords are simply trying to vary their leases and I’ve done a couple of appeals lately.”
Historically, most pubs were owned by the breweries who introduced a system of Tied Houses where tenants were committed to buying some or all of their spirits, beers and minerals from the breweries that owned them. A Free House can buy supplies from anyone.
The idea of Tied Houses was introduced at the end of the 19th century but in more recent times the arrangement has received criticism about unfair business practices.
“Hundreds of leases have horrible clauses about rent escalations and there have been a number of test cases involving tenants in a Tied House, with concerns about whether a Tied House is fair,” says Andrew.
“Many of these agreements are onerous and there are tenants who want to get out of the lease or are looking for a rent decrease because of falling trade or market conditions. They might be regarded as ‘toxic’ assets and many old pubs are ending up being converted into housing, including student accommodation.”
Andrew’s own family were in the licensed trade and his grandparents ran a Plymouth pub, supplied by the Octagon Brewery, and then bought a licensed hotel in Torquay.
“In my childhood there were only three breweries – Whitbread, Courage and Bass – all selling their beer via tenants,” says Andrew, a keen historian who is writing a book on Victorian law. And now he has taken the plunge and bought a pub himself, The Morley Arms in Plymstock, a Free House pub which closed in 2016. It’s a popular landmark next to Laira Bridge in the city and was destined to be converted into office space.
“We bought the property as an investment in October last year,” explains Andrew. “It was full of stuff when we bought it and then we thought why don’t we start trading? Pubs were traditionally the focal point of the community and that’s what we want. We want to encourage mums on the school run to get coffees on the way back from school. And we want an eatery and to make it family friendly.
“It needs to have food and be a good community asset need to get sufficient money to make it viable. It’s a lovely pub and has been very popular. The Morley Arms was built as a coaching house as part of the Morley Estate in 1824 and was sold to a brewery in 1929.”
Andrew Lugger is a partner of Curtis Whiteford Crocker, with offices in Plymouth, Tavistock and Torpoint. Visit www.cwcsolicitors.co.uk.