Phil’s Forty, 12: Your city needs you

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.

Sesh, 2016
Sesh, 2016.

Your city needs you.

Or more to the point your boozer needs you, or your favourite restaurant.

I spent a significant part of this morning on a Skype call organised by RSM UK audit, tax and consulting specialists and bringing together representatives of hospitality and leisure businesses located between Hull and Newcastle.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to reveal everything that was said but the reason for the discussion was the pain being experienced by that sector. The hope was that we would find some answers, but it was impossible to ignore the number and size of the variables.

The meeting was book-ended by two big announcements. First, news came out that Hull Fair is extremely unlikely to take place this year. Within minutes of closing the call came the news that Humber Street Sesh was also a casualty of coronavirus.

Neither cancellation was particularly surprising but they will both have a big impact on the city’s economy. Hull City Council makes a lot of money from Hull Fair and businesses around the Fruit Market do very well from Humber Street Sesh, but it’s unlikely that the operators of pubs, clubs and restaurants elsewhere in the city will be crying into their beer.

They always take a hit during Hull Fair week – some restaurants just take the week off – and over the last couple of years there’s been evidence that the hangover has lingered. There was a time when the works nights out for Christmas began in November, then it slipped to December and last year the manager of one very popular city centre pub said it never really happened at all.

Follow that with the routinely fallow January and early February and it’s so easy to see how coronavirus was kicking an industry when it was already down.

Hull Fair isn’t the only factor of course. For various reasons discretionary spend seems to have declined in recent years and when that happens taxis, pubs and restaurants are the first to suffer. There’s a tendency to socialise closer to home – some of the pubs I use in Cottingham were rocking during the weekends which preceded lockdown – and of course just to stay at home. Even the most expensive supermarket beer is cheaper than the lowest price pub beer!

Will that be reversed post-lockdown with people desperate for a taste of freedom or will people have found they’re perfectly comfortable sticking to the house parties?

I prefer a mix of the two, but this is where we come to those variables. When will pubs and restaurants be allowed to open, and on what scale? There are reports of some pubs being told November and with a capacity of 35, prompting them to take the view it’s not worth opening until 2021.

Others, it seems, have been told they could open in July with capacity depending on the calculation around the prevailing social distance. The operator of one pub and club business in the north east told us a distance of one metre would enable him to trade at 75 per cent, but two metres brings that down to 35 per cent.

Participants from our patch were near neighbours Emma Kinton and Simon Pownall, founders of the wonderful Hotham’s Distillery in Hepworth’s Arcade, and Allan Rice of Atom Beers and his brewery’s lovely Corn Exchange pub.

Both businesses are busting a gut at the moment to service their customers with online orders – Hotham’s are even presenting some cocktail classes on their Facebook pages – and deliveries to your door. They’re not the only ones – Furley & Co are offering cans, bottles and a great big bag of beer or cider in a box alongside servings of some of their terrific food. Other bars have got their own ideas so it’s well worth spending a little time on a virtual pub crawl.

Hopefully their efforts will influence a third variable – rebuilding customer confidence in time for the reopening. They all deserve support for their investment and innovation. Hull is rightly proud of its vibrant and varied pub scene. It’s one of the things that attracted me here and it would be devastating to lose it.

Phil Ascough

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