Race for outdoor space ahead of re-opening

April 12 re-opening day applies only to outdoor sales

Pubs are sprucing up their beer gardens and patios in preparation for Monday, April 12 – the earliest date they can resume trading, according to the Government’s roadmap. The date depends on virus data continuing to be favourable, with only outdoor opening permitted for the first month until May 17, when indoor service will be allowed with social distancing and hygiene measures, and table service only.

All eyes are now on next week’s Budget (Wednesday March 3) to see what financial support will be extended to pubs while they remain closed or under restrictions. It is widely expected that the furlough scheme and business rates holiday will continue, but less confidence that the cut in VAT from 20 to 5% will be extended to alcohol, or that there will be any cut in beer duty.

Plenty of outdoor space at Tap Social’s Botley tap room

Maximising the use of outside space will be crucial to the first month’s trading after re-opening, and probably for much longer as many customers would prefer to stay outdoors. Oxford City Council has already responded favourably to pleas by CAMRA and the Liberal Democrats to open up more pavement space, as happened last year. The hope is that other councils will be equally understanding.

A council spokesperson said: “Last year we pedestrianised or part-pedestrianised streets across Oxford to provide outdoor seating areas for more than 30 pubs, restaurants and cafes. This included George Street, Broad Street, St Michael’s Street, Dawson Street and Observatory Street. Many of the businesses said they would not have reopened after lockdown without this support. Working with Oxfordshire County Council, the highways authority, we are looking to pedestrianise or part-pedestrianise further streets to support businesses in the future.”

North Parade Avenue in North Oxford – which includes the Rose & Crown and Gardeners Arms among several restaurants and cafes – is likely to be predestrianised this time around. The Rose & Crown already has a rear patio for outside service but a small indoor area, and pedestrianising the street would allow it to have two more tables for six, or three if social distancing ends.

Revamped beer garden at the Gardeners Arms, Plantation Road, Oxford

Having outside space was a lifeline for city pubs last year, as without it pubs such as the Bear, White Horse and Grapes would not have been able to open. The success of the pedestrianised areas in George Street, St Michael’s Street and Broad Street proves that the public really appreciate the opportunity to support pubs that can trade safely.

The last 11 months have been a nightmare for pubs and breweries, which sadly could result in many permanent closures. While pubs look to the budget to offer them the ongoing financial support they all too clearly need, they look to their local authority to do all it can to make any level of trading possible. The rules relating to pavement licences are explained here, or you can email citycentre@oxford.gov.uk. There is a non-refundable £100 application fee for a pavement licence, but that could be small price to pay if it makes the difference between breaking even, trading at a loss or not re-opening at all.

Pubs outside urban areas, especially in villages, often have beer gardens or car parks that could be converted into sitting areas, while some have created heated and self-enclosed dining pods in their gardens. But the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), the leading trade association representing brewers and pubs, says 29,000 pubs – 60% of all pubs in the UK – will still remain closed when outdoor service is permitted, as their outside space is not big enough. “Even then, if many with big enough outdoor spaces did open, they could still struggle to break even as they would still have vastly reduced capacity and significant practical challenges such as the April weather to deal with,” it adds.

The tiny White Horse in Broad Street could not have opened without pavement seating

The BBPA expressed disappointment with the roadmap, as it had pleaded that all pubs should be allowed to re-open at the same time as non-essential shops. It has also revealed some stark figures, as in April-June 2020 alone, covering the first full lockdown, pub beer sales dropped by 96%. From July to September, despite the temporary VAT cut on food and soft drinks and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, pub beer sales were still down 27%, while from October to December, when harsh tier restrictions were followed by a second full lockdown, pub beer sales dropped by 77% in comparison to 2019. 

CAMRA says the coming Budget is absolutely vital, and is running social media campaigns and urging members to petition their MPs. CAMRA National Chairman Nik Antona said: “Whilst offering some light at the end of the tunnel, the roadmap confirmed several more months of lockdown for pubs and the breweries that serve them. Many locals won’t be able to turn a profit, with many not being viable to open at all whilst restrictions like outdoor-only space and the table service requirement are in place in the coming months. 

The Fir Tree, one of the few Oxford pubs that didn’t re-open last year

“That’s why CAMRA are urging the Chancellor to make sure the Budget commits to long-term, dedicated financial support for pubs, clubs and their supply chains as long as they aren’t operating at full capacity. As well as extending furlough and business rates holidays, our locals desperately need VAT to be reduced for both food and alcoholic drinks, with a cut in duty for beer served on tap to help our pubs compete with supermarkets.”