Georgina Pellant speaks to a beloved and historic Manchester pub as it heads to court this week to fight for its future

“We're not turning around and saying, 'We want to do X, Y, Z, you should pay for it'. We're just saying leave us alone. Let us continue to do what we do.” 

It’s a Friday night inside one of Manchester’s most treasured pubs, and I’m propped up on a slightly weathered-looking leather barstool talking to licensee Allan Hudd about The Briton’s Protection’s upcoming court case. 

He has successfully run the popular Great Bridgewater Street boozer alongside business partner Mark West for 12 years, but this week faces a battle of epic proportions as a two year fight against Heineken’s Star Pubs & Bars finally comes to a head. 

It’s been described as a David and Goliath-style challenge: in one corner, an independently-run 200 year old pub and its tiny team trying to renew their hard-won lease; in the other, a major global brewery with 2,400 pubs in its UK portfolio that wants to bring it back under the helm. 

Still, The Briton’s Protection team does not intend to give in without a struggle. With a 17,000-strong petition to support its case, thousands of pounds raised in customer donations and the representation of a local barrister (who, as a loyal pub regular, has offered his services free of charge on the proviso that they win), this coming week looks set to be very interesting indeed.

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Allan Hudd Image: Confidentials

So, what’s all the fuss about? 

As a result of market rent only (MRO) UK legislation introduced in 2016, The Briton’s Protection was able to get out of its brewery tie (a centuries-old concept where large businesses rent their pubs to tenants but restrict what they can buy, often at inflated prices) and expand its offering: all while continuing to pay rent, and buy Heineken kegs separately on top. 

Allan and his team have since spent the following eight years creating a drinker’s haven on the outskirts of the city centre: introducing 6-8 regularly rotating hand-pull casks as well as building a near 400-strong collection of whiskies and bourbons. As a result, the historic Grade II listed pub - famed for giving refuge to protesters during the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 -  has become something of a mecca for cask ale, bourbon and whiskey fans, pulling in visitors not just from the UK but across the world.

Today it boasts a huge whiskey and bourbon collection with nearly 50 different styles, has the biggest collection of Jack Daniels in the city, and its team even make a yearly pilgrimage to the Tennessee distillery to create their own Manchester cask with JD’s master distiller - resulting in a unique run of roughly 300 bottles which they sell on to global collectors in places like Sweden, Australia, the US and New Zealand, as well as to local drinkers through the pub. 

The boozer is also featured in The Campaign For Real Ale’s (CAMRA) Good Beer Guide - an annual publication listing what its local member branches consider to be the best 4,500 pubs in the United Kingdom - and works consistently with Manchester breweries including Track, Beartown and Brightside to offer customers some of the best rotating beer taps in the city. 

2024 06 14 Britons Protection Exterior
The Britons Protection Image: Confidentials

But now, everything Allan and the team have worked so hard to build could be lost if judges at Manchester Civil Justice Centre decide to rule in Heineken and Star Pub’s favour this week. Fortunately he seems pretty confident that won’t happen, telling me, “On one hand, it's daring, but on the other hand, I think, 'Do you know what? If anything's right, we're going to win'.”

He says even though the case has been drawn out and their leather work is starting to suffer, the support from the community has been amazing and they’ve had people coming in from all over - with some travelling far distances to have a drink and let the team know they are on side. 

One person in Devon apparently emailed some friends he knew were visiting Manchester to tell them about the pub’s plight. Another travelled across from Florida with his family to the pub, having visited solo a few years prior. Still its future remains uncertain - although there are already plans in place for a big garden party if they win, as well as promises from local breweries to supply them with free kegs. 

What’s more, over £10,000 pounds has been raised towards any potential legal costs by their customers. “You know,” he says, “it's not a load of money, but for us, especially for the community, it's a really great thing that they've done for us.” 

They also have the support of barrister Robert Darbyshire from John Street Chambers, a local who loves the pub and offered to work on the case for free provided that they win.

“He's actually a regular here,” Allan says. “He contacted us when it all went public. He said, I love the pub, I love what you guys do, I love the heritage of it. I'll take the case [...] he's looking forward to getting in court and seeing what's what.”

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Allan at the bar Image: Confidentials

The pub’s current lease agreement came to an end two years ago, following a gruelling time struggling through the pandemic. Like many hospitality businesses during that period The Briton’s Protection was behind on rent, but had been given assurances by Star Pubs that if it paid all outstanding monies and the next quarter upfront in full there would be no issues moving forward with a new contract. 

In spite of those assurances, one week after paying Star Pubs the requisite £170,000 it was served with an eviction notice. Now, following a lot of legal back and forth, this week they will have their time in court to challenge the company’s move to serve the Section 25 order, which states it wants to take the pub back into its managed Just Add Talent (JAT) portfolio. 

Speaking on the upcoming case, Allan says: “We're asking for our lease. That's it. We're not turning around and going, 'We want to do X, Y, Z. You should pay for it'. We're just saying, leave us alone. Let us continue to do what we do. And that's the bit that gets me. 

“We're not asking for the world, we're just asking to be left alone. You get your rent as you're meant to, we never miss a single payment. If we're a bad tenant [...] I would get it.

“Even the whole COVID thing, when we owed him the rent, and what triggered this; we paid him the back rent, coming out the back of COVID, and then they evicted us. Well, the same pubs that were in our position, within six months of that happening, then managed to negotiate their rents down to like 40 percent of what they actually owed.” 

He also reveals his concern that the pub could shut in a few years if it loses the offering that currently makes it so special, pointing to the lack of variety in Heineken’s portfolio and the low footfall the site gets due to its location.

"I don't want this becoming just another soulless building that's been whitewashed,” he tells me. “And then people walk past and go, 'Nah, you know what, we'll give it a miss'. Because if they do that, it's going to close down in a year or two. Whether they want it to or not.

“They haven't got the portfolio alone to support the whiskeys. They don't. And I know because I used to have to buy from them. And, occasionally, I'd buy their whole box, but they would top out at no less than 10 whiskeys. They are not going to start stocking and buying hundreds of whiskeys for one pub.

“Then the beer's coming from Scotland, when I've got 50, 60 breweries in Manchester that I couldn't work with. That's why we went free of tie. Because of all these local breweries that we could be working with, and we're having to buy Unicorn, Jennings Cumberland and Dwight, and we've had it on for eight years. It's the same stagnant three beers.” 

2024 06 14 Britons Protection Sign Interior
A sign of the times? Image: Confidentails

He continues: “I would say, as much as we're in the city centre, we're very much a destination venue. Because you're either coming to meet people here because of the whiskeys or the casks, or you're coming here because you go to, say, the Bridgewater Hall, but that doesn't sustain you all week - and there's a time in August where they shut for essentially an entire month and we just kind of take that hit. 

“The guys who own this place, they know there's going to be moments where it's quiet, like there is every year. And they know that we're going to have those quiet times and we work around them. But that's because the guys who own it, own it for a passion as opposed to profit. 

“I can't see someone behind me saying, 'It's quiet, we'll just take the hit'.”

The Briton’s Protection will call on security of tenure legislation - which provides tenants with an automatic right to remain in possession of leasehold business premises after the lease term reaches its natural end - to ask the court to allow it to continue to operate the pub for another 10 years. 

This May, Heineken announced plans to put £39 million into reopening and refurbishing pubs across the UK through its Just Add Talent (JAT) model. The move follows a decision by the Pub Codes Adjudicator (PCA) in 2019 to fine Star Pubs & Bars for “seriously and repeatedly” breaching the code over a period of three years by offering unreasonable stocking terms to JAT tenants seeking to go free of tie. The pub chain has since agreed to pay £1.25m to end High Court litigation with the PCA. 

The Briton’s Protection’s challenge to Star Pubs & Bars Section 25 Order will be heard at Manchester Civil Jutsice Centre this week, starting on Monday 17th June. 

Manchester Confidential has approached Star Pubs & Bars for comment.

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