The Pubs Code Adjudicator enforces the code regulating the relationship between companies owning 500 or more tied pubs in England and Wales and their tenants.
This July marks a major milestone in the history of the UK pub sector. The new Pubs Code, designed to give new rights and greater protections to thousands of tied pub tenants, has its first anniversary.
I took on the role of Pubs Code Adjudicator on a mission to make a difference; I knew the Pubs Code was the result of legitimate concerns raised by many people – including FSB – over many years. Like many FSB members, I am passionate about wanting to see our pubs thrive and for tied pub tenants to have a fair deal. With 30 years’ experience as a Chartered Surveyor in the sector, I had come face to face with the issues experienced by tenants of the large pub-owning businesses.
There was just a 10-week window between my appointment and the Pubs Code going live in July 2016, so it was a challenging task to get my office up and running, as well as grapple with the legislation.
Today, I am confident that we are seeing progress.
I am absolutely committed to providing fair, impartial, accurate, timely and cost-effective access to code rights and redress where appropriate. But pub tenants must take the time to understand the Pubs Code. It exists to help them make decisions about their businesses that are right for them, and in certain cases there are strict time limits for acting on those rights.
Protections under the Pubs Code include the tenant’s right to information that supports a more transparent and fair rent assessment, and the right to refer code-related disputes to me for arbitration. Dealing with arbitrations has made up a significant part of the year’s workload. By April, I had made awards in 25 cases; that figure has now risen substantially.
The Pubs Code also provides for a free-of-tie tenancy known as a market rent only – or MRO – option. Tenants can exercise that right in certain circumstances, such as when they receive a rent assessment, or remain tied. However, if they want an MRO option they must act swiftly and send a notice to their pub-owning business within 21 days.
MRO has received the most attention of all Pubs Code issues. It remains one of the top issues referred to me for arbitration. I have heard concerns about tenants’ difficulties accessing MRO, and I am currently building an evidence-based understanding of the experiences of those who have exercised their new rights and to validate those concerns.
Groups best placed to know have been responding to my enquiries on how reliable reports of issues are, how widespread any issues might be and the extent of their impact.
I have also asked the pub-owning businesses to provide me with information on their MRO processes.
I have a range of powers at my disposal, from taking no further action, through working collaboratively for change, to carrying out an investigation – but I will need to see the totality of the evidence before deciding what is appropriate. It is my guiding principle that I will go where the evidence takes me when investigating and enforcing the code.
There have been major steps forward this year, but I know the tied pubs sector has just begun on the road to change, and there is much more to achieve.