Belhaven boss wants Westminster to follow Holyrood on drink prices

WESTMINSTER should follow Holyrood’s lead and set a minimum price for alcohol of 50p per unit, the chief executive of Belhaven owner Greene King said yesterday.

Rooney Anand said the group, with more than 2,000 hotels, pubs and restaurants across the UK, supported the coalition government’s position but called for a harmonised level of pricing.

The UK government is currently consulting on the issue and its alcohol strategy, published in March, indicated it was considering a minimum price of 40 per unit, although ministers have suggested the final figure could be higher.

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Anand told The Scotsman: “Alcohol is a valued part of everyday life. Most people consume it sensibly and there’s no need to punish everybody unnecessarily, but equally there is a segment of the population that has been trained to drink more than they might have done if it wasn’t as cheap.”

He added: “We support Downing Street’s position on minimum pricing, but if you’re going to set one it needs to be not so high that it’s punitive for the responsible majority, but it needs to be high enough to curb the behaviour of those who are sadly giving alcohol a bad name.”

His call came as the group, which also owns the Loch Fyne chain of seafood restaurants, announced an 8.6 per cent rise in underlying pre-tax profits to £152 million, on total revenues 9.4 per cent higher at £1.1 billion.

Food sales rose 17 per cent in the year and the firm said it was broadening its appeal by introducing lower calorie dishes and takeaway options.

Volume sales of its Belhaven brands rose 3.9 per cent in the year, and Belhaven Best maintained its position as the leading ale brand in Scotland.

The group launched a new stout, Belhaven Black, at the start of the year and Anand said it had been well received. “We think it’s a nice drop of stout for those people who want something slightly different,” he added.

Greene King, based in Bury St Edmunds, said trading in the past eight weeks had been boosted by the Diamond Jubilee and the Euro 2012 football championships, with like-for-like sales up 7 per cent.

Anand said the Olympics could provide a further hike to sales but was cautious about the coming year.

He added: “It’s still a tough environment. There’s uncertainty in the UK, the eurozone continues to be fragile, so it’s sensible to be wary.

“But the consumer is treating pubs, and our business in particular, as a really important part of coping with the doom and gloom. It’s an affordable everyday treat.”

The board recommended a final dividend of 18.1p per share to be paid on 10 September, taking the total dividend for the year to 24.8p, up 7.4 per cent on a year ago.

Separately, rival Punch Taverns said its third-quarter trading was hit by bad weather and the timing of bank holidays, but it was on target to meet full-year profit expectations.

Punch said like-for-like net income across its core estate of almost 3,000 pubs fell 6.4 per cent in the third quarter, and it remained on track to sell up to 500 non-core pubs this year.