SCOTTISH pub tenants are poised to receive a major boost as ministers reveal new legislation to provide a fairer deal for the tied pubs sector – although not all licensed trade industry groups agree with one describing the move as a “disappointment”.

The Scottish Government says that a new Scottish Pubs Code will improve the rights of tied pubs tenants across the country and allow eligible tenants to sell a guest beer from brands that have small production levels, or switch to a market rate lease under which they could purchase products from any supplier.

Sitting at opposite ends of the debate are the Scottish Beer & Pub Association (SBPA) and the SLTA (Scottish Licensed Trade Association). A spokesperson for the SBPA described the news as “a major disappointment for the sector”, noting: “The code is seeking to fix a problem that doesn’t exist and will come with added costs and complexity at an extremely challenging economic time for Scotland’s pubs.

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“The prospect of a code has already stifled investment into the leased and tenanted sector north of the Border and unfortunately this news is unlikely to reverse that. In 2023, pubs in Scotland closed at twice the rate of England. The sector – which supports around 45,000 jobs – needs positive action from government, not further unwanted, unevidenced and unwarranted interventions.

“We will work proactively with the Scottish Government to minimise the negative impacts and deliver a workable code, however this will not be welcomed by the majority of pub owners, tenants and customers.”

However, the SLTA, which represents independent licensees, has long been a supporter of both the Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill and a Scottish Pubs Code, claiming that many Scottish tied pub tenants have lost their livelihoods and savings as a result of the behaviour of pub chains. 

Gavin Stevenson, an Inverness-based publican who is the SLTA’s tied pubs policy adviser, said: “This Act will regulate the tied pubs sector and provide some of the same protections that tenants in England have long enjoyed.”

However, Mr Stevenson was critical of the delay in implementing the legislation, due to the legal action by some pub chain owners. He said: “We are extremely disappointed in the delays to implementation, first as a result of the Scottish Government insisting on an extended two-year period for the Act to take effect,” he noted.

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He pointed to “the obstructive behaviour of some of the tied pub companies in pursuing protracted, but futile, legal challenges” and the Scottish Government announcing that the Act will not take full effect until much later this year.

“Scottish tied pub tenants cannot afford any further delay, and we urge the Scottish Government to accelerate implementation,” he said.

Although the Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill 2021, put forward by Labour MSP Neil Bibby, was passed unanimously by Parliament in March 2021 and became an Act on May 5, 2021, there were delays to the introduction of secondary legislation following legal challenges to the Act brought by some pub-owning businesses, including Greene King.

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This culminated in a decision by the Supreme Court last month not to hear their appeal.

Yesterday, the Scottish Government said that ministers expect the legislation to deliver a fairer tied pubs sector, with risks and rewards being more equally shared between tenants and their landlords. In 2023, it was estimated that there were just under 700 tied pubs in Scotland.

A tied lease involves tenants buying some or all of their alcohol and other products and services from the pub-owning business.

Small Business Minister Richard Lochhead said that “it’s in everyone’s interest that the [pub] sector prospers, noting: “We need to do all we can to protect pubs, bars and licensed clubs in Scotland, which in 2022 supported 34,000 jobs throughout the country and play an important role in our communities.

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“I am pleased that we are now free to introduce measures contained in the Tied Pubs (Scotland) Act and give tenants more freedom to choose the lease which best suits their needs and diversify the number of products they can sell.

“I look forward to working with tenants, pub-owning businesses and the new Scottish Pubs Code Adjudicator to deliver these important changes.”

Consumer beer group Camra welcomed the development. Its Scotland director Stuart McMahon said it meant that the Scottish Government recognises the “importance of protecting pubs and the role they play in our communities”, adding: “As well as making sure tied tenants can earn a decent living, the new pubs code looks set to make it easier for tied tenants to sell more locally-brewed beers, increasing choice at the bar for customers of tasty and distinctive products from small, local and independent breweries – particularly cask ale.”