IT’S not shaping up to be a particularly happy Christmas for south west operators Sinead Farrell and Derek Hart.
The couple are fighting for business survival thanks to what they claim is an ill-conceived policy implemented by the Wigtown licensing board.
Regular readers may well know the background. Earlier this year, following a review of its policy statement, the Wigtown board – one of four covering Dumfries & Galloway – cut back the terminal hour for licensed premises. It meant those who had previously been entitled to sell alcohol to 2am could now only do so until 1am.
On paper it may not seem like much, but it’s turned out to be a huge deal for the trade in towns like Newton Stewart and other parts of the area.
As a result of the new policy, which was driven by police concerns over dealing with late night disorder, they say significantly fewer people are going out in Newton Stewart and heading to Stranraer instead, where venues still close at 2am.
The operators claim the policy has badly damaged trade at their Crown Hotel in Newton Stewart, which they spent £200,000 upgrading, with business also affected at their Bladnoch Inn and Galloway Inn in nearby Wigtown.
But it’s not just the licensed trade which seems to have been hit: taxis and takeaways have seen trade drop, diminishing the economic vibrancy of the town and putting important jobs at risk. It’s no surprise the Wigtownshire Chamber of Commerce claimed the board had shown ‘contempt’ for local businesses with its stance.
Adding insult to injury are claims the policy has had no improving effect on crime and disorder, with the chamber saying the influx of drinkers to Stranraer has led to a spike in incidents there.
Responding to questions from SLTN last week, the board strongly refuted suggestions it had failed to take the needs of local businesses into account.
A spokeswoman confirmed the board had rubber-stamped five applications for extended hours for the Crown Hotel over the festive season, and would review the policy in January, having digested a report it was due to receive on the matter on December 7.
But this response is unlikely to appease Farrell and Hart.
Business has been so badly affected that they said they were unable to pay their staff last week, with takings down £70,000 between May and October on last year.
Their 40-plus staff have agreed to work for free in the interim to give the business some breathing space, and the couple’s licensing solicitor, Janet Hood, took no fee as she represented them in their application for festive hours extensions.
I’m not suggesting the Wigtown board will have acted in anything other than public interest when its ill-fated policy was phased in. I also think it unlikely it would have wilfully shown contempt to businesses in the area.
But it seems fairly clear that its hours experiment has failed – and it should take immediate steps to abandon it in January. We can only hope Farrell and Hart will still be trading by then.