“We apologise for Blue Boar in Ludlow” say @PunchPubs as pub is shut until next year

“We are sorry. We shouldn’t be here. The residents shouldn’t be here. Can I apologise on behalf of Punch Taverns?”

Perhaps we weren’t expecting an apology at all. We certainly weren’t expecting such an honest admission and open acknowledgement from Punch Taverns about events at the Blue Boar in Mill Street here in Ludlow. But that statement from the pubco – and a first class performance by town centre residents – meant that Tuesday’s review of the licence came to a sensible agreement on the future of this troubled pub.

The Blue Boar will remain shut for a month. When it reopens, it will be under new management, perhaps run by a well-respected pub manager already in Ludlow. On reopening the pub will be on “special measures” for two months with tighter conditions in the long term (the new licence conditions: Blue Boar Ludlow Review Findings). This is aimed at “changing the culture” of the pub, “civilising it” might be a better term. After that, everyone hopes the pub will be a decent place for drinking and eating location just as it used to be. If it does not improve, the review panel made clear it is likely take a very strong line in any future review.

The licence review

The Blue Boar was shut at midnight on 26 November after West Mercia Police asked Shropshire Council to suspend the Designated Premises Supervisor. You can’t open the doors of a pub without a DPS. Punch Taverns decided not to replace the DPS immediately and the pub has remained closed since. The police, led by Sergeant Adrian Woolley with the support of Inspector Rob Thomas, applied for an expedited review of the premises licence. This was the review that took place in Shirehall yesterday.

The Shrewsbury Room was packed for the hearing. A panel of three councillors, chaired by Andrew Davies, sat at the head of the table flanked by the committee secretary and a council lawyer. Council licensing officials and the police sat on one side of the table. They faced six Mill Street residents and our town clerk, Gina Wilding. In between, sat the premises licence holder (a Punch Taverns executive) and the company’s lawyer, Mr Phipps. Half a dozen of us sat in the gallery, including the man who hopes to take over the Blue Boar. There was no sign of the suspended DPS, Alan Ebbon.

The licence review process is formal, much like a tribunal where adjudicators try to find common ground and ways forward without adversarial combat. I was impressed by the way that Councillor Andrew Davies chaired the session, putting people at ease and seeking consensus.

This licensing review had been called by the police. After the introductions and explanations of procedure, it was down to Sergeant Woolley to set out the case against the suspended DPS and Punch Taverns. He soon got into his stride telling the review:

“The Blue Boar is not in an average commercial area. It’s in a medieval town, set amongst historic buildings, mostly residential.”

He spoke of out of hours serving, fighting, noise from loud music and under age sales. Residents in their 70s and 80s have been forced to go out in their dressing gowns to complain about the noise. But, Sergeant Woolley said, many residents are too scared to speak out late at night. He told the panel that DPS Alan Ebbon had declined to be part of Pubwatch – the local barring scheme for people who abuse the hospitality of our pubs. The Blue Boar did not operate a barring policy or maintain a list of people who should be barred. There was no staff training. Mr Ebbon was not on the premises when most of the disorder took place.

The police have been trying to resolve the problems at the Blue Boar for some time. They held an “intervention meeting” with the DPS in October 2013. It didn’t make any difference. In March of this year, the police recorded two more underage sales. In October, there was a conviction for underage sales. Door staff were brought in but it seemed to make little difference.

Sergeant Woolley described the pub as “akin to Magaluf” with “a do what they want, drink what they want culture.” As reported in the press, a man who had earlier glassed a customer in the pub was jailed for four years. He told of how a man had been refused alcohol at 2.30pm for being drunk but allowed to remain on the premises. But at 9pm, the man was served more drink. He got into a dispute and ended up with a crushed skull.

The residents were then given an opportunity to speak. Thirteen had sent written comments supporting the review. Six residents presented the case to the panel. Their calmness and their reasoned, constructive approach strengthened their arguments. Robin Pote set out the case from the Town Centre Residents Association, including a set of seven conditions they wanted imposed on the Blue Boar when it reopened. He said the residents wanted a return to the decent pub they remember. Others explained how the noise and appalling behaviour at the pub occurred not just at night but on weekend afternoons. One commented: “I have never heard so much foul language before.” Despite declaring the Blue Boar “a blight on the centre of Ludlow”, the residents were unanimous in stating that they were not seeking to close the pub. They just want a better run pub.

That triggered a comment from one of the panel members. Councillor Keith Roberts praised the residents for their presentation. He said: “It’s nice to see a different approach. Not just people trying to close a pub down.”

Mr Phipps, the lawyer for the pubco, was asked if he had questions to put to the tenants. He said “No. The residents have made a fair summary of what has been going on.”

Town clerk Gina Wilding spoke of how the town council’s staff had witnessed fights outside the Blue Boar on Saturday afternoons. They frequently had to clear up puddles of vomit and broken glass, including immediately before the town gave the Freedom of Ludlow to the Royal Welsh.

Taking his turn to speak, Mr Phipps said:

“Sorry. We shouldn’t be here. Can I apologise on behalf of Punch Taverns? This is not a case where cross examining and cross questioning [of residents] is appropriate. We have read and reread with significant concern what residents have suffered over two years. We are not impressed [with what has happened]. We are not impressed with ourselves either.”

Mr Phipps talked about Punch Taverns owning 4,000 pubs and claimed that the company does “an exemplary job in holding licences.” He confessed: “We didn’t do that here at the Blue Boar.”

We weren’t expecting to hear that admission.

Mr Phipps explained that an earlier dialogue with residents “got lost within Punch Taverns” when a former area manager failed to pass information on. He then criticised the police and Shropshire Council for not engaging with the company as problems arose: “Unfortunately there was no dialogue, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.” However, he acknowledged: “We acknowledge that there needs to be a change in culture.”

Mr Phipps then began what proved to a carefully reasoned gambit. Punch Taverns was proposing to ask the licensing committee to suspend the licence of the Blue Boar for month. This, he assured us, is a very unusual move. The pub would not reopen in Alan Ebbon’s name or anyone else’s during that month, Punch would ensure that Mr Ebbon left the premises. The suspension would also ensure “that change is embedded”.

Mr Phipps said Punch Taverns has no objection to removal of Mr Ebbon as DPS. “Mr Ebbon has failed to appear this morning,” he told us. “You can draw your own conclusions from that.”

He worked through the licence conditions proposed by the police and residents, accepting some, questioning others. Of course the Blue Boar should be on Pubwatch and staff should operate Challenge 25. There should be regular meetings with the community. Staff should be trained. Mr Phipps invited the committee to remove the automatic extensions that pubs get on public holidays, except for the extension New Year’s Eve. I saw this as another bit of his gambit of making concessions to achieve his ambitions – blocking or easing restrictions on bouncers and opening times.

But he said he wasn’t inviting the committee to impose earlier opening times on Friday and Saturday nights. And he wasn’t happy about licence conditions on bouncers. He said the proposal to have door staff on duty whenever there were than more than one hundred people in the pub was “draconian”. He didn’t want to have a ban on people drinking out of bottles: “Drinking out of bottles can be stylish and a ban could put off the right sort of people.” He said it is not viable to have a licence condition that insists that pub noise is not heard in other buildings.

Tony Mahalski, a resident of Mill Street, complained that it had “taken a train crash to get Punch Taverns here today.” He asked what carrots and sticks Punch Taverns had to ensure that the Blue Boar improved. Mr Phipps said it wasn’t really a question of carrots – there was one big stick. The company says to tenants: “If you don’t stick to the licence, we’ll throw you out.” Referring to Mr Ebbon, he said: “That’s what’s going on in the background now.” Mr Phipps said there would be an “ongoing dialogue” but “no covert monitoring” of the new tenant of the Blue Boar. The tenant will have “complete autonomy”.

On further questioning by tenants, Mr Phipps accepted that there could still be people making noise on Mill Street after midnight with the arrangements he was proposing. When told that the Blue Boar “was not a decent pub two years ago” as he had suggested, Mr Phipps admitted: “I hadn’t understood that.”

There was much discussion of opening hours and the hours during which alcohol could be served (which are shorter to allow for up to one hour’s drinking up time).

Sergeant Woolley said there needed to be the right conditions in place to support the new DPS. He wanted a DPS on the premises on Friday and Saturday nights, and a Personal Licence Holder on Saturdays. Mr Phipps said that Punch had no disagreement with this.

(A Personal Licence Holder authorises the sale of alcohol. The Designated Premises Supervisor carries legal responsibility for the way the premises are run.)

I was disappointed that Shropshire Council sent just one licensing officer to present to the panel. Surely expert comment from the noise and antisocial behaviour specialists should have been fielded in a case like this. I think we were all surprised when the licensing officer suggested that some of the conditions that Punch had already agreed to might be weakened. He said it would be unreasonable to require a DPS to be on the premises at fixed times. The condition should imposed for three months at the most because a DPS could be ill or on holiday. This raised the eyebrows of the Punch team and Mr Phipps remarked somewhat drolly:

“It is extraordinary that I am being asked to water down conditions that Punch itself has proposed.”

The council officer also questioned whether it was practical to organise a clean-up on Mill Street after the pub closes at night or in the early hours. Mr Phipps was firm; the street will be cleaned after the pub shuts.

After a little more discussion, the panel retired into private session.

The Decision

The new licence conditions: Blue Boar Ludlow Review Findings.

The licensing panel also recommended that the Blue Boar joins Pubwatch.

My comment

The police acted well. The residents acted well. It looks like Punch Taverns are now going to act well. I hope so. Everyone hopes so. No one is against having a pub on Mill Street. We just want a decent pub.

There are still questions on why the problems at the Blue Boar were allowed to go on for years. The way that Punch Taverns allows tenants run their own business in their own way is a fine idea. But it doesn’t seem to square with its licensing responsibilities to act when things go wrong. It seems to me that the company wants to rely on the police and local councils to manage its estate rather than trying to find out what is happening itself. It could start by looking at Trip Advisor.

TripAdvisor_Blue_Boar_17_Dec_2014If Punch Taverns get the right tenant into the Blue Boar, we could see a real turnaround of this long troubled pub.

Punch is doing the right thing now but they should have acted long ago. I think they have let Ludlow down. In my view, Punch Taverns is now on probation in Ludlow from now on. The company must prove that it can turn the Blue Boar around.

I look forward to drinking in a pub where I feel safe, where I don’t have to listen to continuous foul language from out of control drunks and where my feet don’t stick to the carpet.