How many “superpubs” does Edinburgh need?

You can say what you like about JD Wetherspoon (I prefer the cosy local myself) but there’s no doubt their superpubs have become massively popular the length and breadth of the UK – now with 900 branches, more than 50 in Scotland and eight in Edinburgh and counting.  They’ve got so many outlets there’s even a dedicated mobile phone App for finding the nearest!

And people certainly know what they’re going to get before they step into this sort of pub –  relatively low-cost drink and pub grub in a big venue. As the price of a pint rises steadily, a well-managed pub that can offer a few quid off the damage obviously has its attractions.

But advert over, all this comes at a heavy cost to the smaller publican who just can’t compete with the buy-in-bulk sell-it-cheap tactics of the superpub. As with supermarkets and local grocers, the superpub is in real danger of squeezing out the independent who provides variety and the ‘Cheers’ factor – where maybe not ‘everybody knows your name’ but there’s less of a cattle-shed atmosphere.  Indeed this area of Southside where the latest superpub is proposed is very well–served by a handful of great smaller pubs who are going to be seriously concerned about a 4000 square foot cut-price competitor.

And the JD Wetherspoon occupation of Edinburgh hasn’t been without previous controversy – the Standing Order in George Street appeared without opposition because it slotted right into the City-centre environment but the takeover of the Picture House music venue on Lothian Road was strongly opposed.  In the case of the New Empire bingo, this isn’t an established music venue being ousted, but surely there’s an opportunity here for development that would contribute far more to the neighbourhood and the community.

The Southside is a vibrant bustling, diverse residential, shopping and cafe area but it has its social problems. In the last few years street drinkers, moved-on from the Tron square, took up residence in the newly landscaped Nicolson square, presenting a challenge to the community and the police. Also the police have in the recent past had to run dedicated operations along the Nicolson Street corridor to combat on-street crime because it’s such a hotspot. I really can’t see how introducing a very large, low-cost alcohol pub into this environment is going to help. Add to this that many residents will be concerned about late-night noise – a fact that has seen superpubs blocked in the past.

Even if planning permission is granted, this superpub will still need a licence to sell alcohol. Although the majority on the City’s Licensing Board have hit the headlines recently for granting licenses in the face of advice from the NHS and the Police, I hope they would take seriously the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership stats that compared to Edinburgh as a whole, the Meadows area already has both higher than average pubs sales and off-sales along with over 50% more alcohol-related crimes – that’s why it’s coloured red on the EADP City map as ‘high impact’.

On Thursday councillors will debate the ruling Coalition’s progress on their 53 pledges, one of which is to ‘work with health, police and third sector agencies to expand existing and effective drug and alcohol treatment programmes’.  Green councillors will say that as well as treatment, tackling causes, such as over-provision of alcohol in sensitive areas, could be a far more effective approach.

This blog first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on 29 May 2014.