James Mortimer on Glasgow’s Licensed trade

James Mortimer: " An application for a 3am entertainment licence should not say ‘I need one because my neighbours have one’.”
James Mortimer: " An application for a 3am entertainment licence should not say ‘I need one because my neighbours have one’.”

Lynnet Leisure Group’s Captain talks with Pat Nolan about licensed trade life in Glasgow.



16 August 2013

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James Mortimer: "An application for a 3am entertainment licence should not say ‘I need one because my neighbours have one’.”

James Mortimer: " An application for a 3am entertainment licence should not say ‘I need one because my neighbours have one’.”

James Mortimer has been described as one of the ‘characters’ in Glasgow’s licensed trade, a ‘personality’. But he’s also changing the face of the city’s famous Royal Exchange Square, bringing life back into the place.

In his time, he’s acquired a significant number of premises from nightclubs to clubs, pubs, restaurants and even a fish & chipper at Royal Exchange Square in the heart of Glasgow where his latest plans include a seven-floor hotel with more than 100 beds, high-end retail units, bars, restaurants and a casino.

Starting at 18 in the Tennents pub in Glasgow, his early years were spent working his way up to tenancies with Tennents and Bass, eventually owning his own pubs.

He bought ‘The Double J’ from Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnson, famous Celtic player from the 60s, building it up into a thriving business in Hamilton, before buying a three-floor auction hall in Glasgow’s famous Sauchiehall Street which he completely renovated and operated ‘Victoria’s’ for the next 17 years. It became the most successful club in the UK.

During its time it played host to a glittering gathering of stars who drank there including Rod Stewart, Tony Bennet and Tom Jones as well as footballers of the time from all over Europe.

Since then he’s continued acquiring outlets in Glasgow and beyond such as The Palace in Glasgow’s Hamilton district.
But I discover that it hasn’t been easy keeping all the plates spinning even though he has a keen eye for business in the hospitality trade, developed over 45 years, when I meet him at his Royal Exchange Square members’ club, The ‘29’.  

“There are too many licensed premises in Glasgow,” he tells me, “In the past there was a presumption to ‘pass’ new applications. Over-provision is a serious issue in Glasgow. Glasgow City Centre does not have sufficient population to support this supply.”

Progress in part
Glasgow has liberated its licensing hours away from the previously positively Presbyterian half-nine closing times of the 50s to a magnanimous 3am. But it’s inconsistent.

“There has to be a clear distinction re-established between entertainment venues and public houses,” he believes, “Nightclubs open to 3am invest heavily in stewarding, CCTV, staff-training, first-aiders and first-aid facilities and also give up the majority of their trading space to dance floors and entertainment. A pub can now get a 3am licence by playing music from an ‘i-pod’.”
He thinks it fairer that public houses should open to 12am, clubs and casinos to 3am and after that hotels can cater for tourists etc wanting a late-night refreshment.

“The offering has to be clear and consistent. An application for a 3am entertainment licence should not say ‘I need one because my neighbours have one’.”

And don’t get him started on the supermarkets…..

Supermarket pricing
“People are not coming out until much later here” he says, “and also when they do come out they’ve already ‘pre-loaded’ on bulk alcohol from supermarkets. This is at the very least undesirable. It stretches police resources, has obvious health concerns and encourages binge-drinking. The damage has been done before the customer crosses the threshold of a licensed premises.”

Minimum pricing is the way forward, however the time it is taking is frustrating. “Supermarkets have a vested interest, the whole picture has to be looked at and issues tackled head on. There has been too much talking and not enough action.”
Sound familiar?

Red tape to be tackled, VAT reduced
Then there’s the red tape brigade.

“The licensed trade has never been so highly regulated,” he says, “Some of this is for the better however a number of changes are unnecessarily bureaucratic or superfluous.

“Costs have never been higher – minimum wage, duty, rates, insurance, financing and now there’s a significant administration burden.

“The licensed trade is often ignored or derided by politicians however it has potential to be a powerhouse for the UK economy as a whole – attracting tourism and creating jobs. This sector needs to be supported. VAT on food offerings should be brought in line with our European Countries to 5%.”

Smoking ban
While he’s not against the smoking ban he does feel that people should be given a choice.

“On the whole this has had a positive impact however more choice has to be made available – such as in parts of Europe, using Holland as an example.

“I think that the government should allow a smoking room instead of forcing old people to stand outside pubs for a cigarette.

“I passed the Park Lane Hilton in London yesterday and there must have been about 40 people outside smoking in the street… I’ve got nine smoking terraces in this building alone and I’ve won awards for them. I’ve won every award going for that.”

Success through working with change?
A number of reasons could account for James Mortimer’s success in the Glasgow licensed trade to date but perhaps his ability to move with the times, to adapt the appeal of his outlets as necessary, has helped drive his business.

As one colleague explained, “Despite his many years in the trade, he’s always prepared to change and is not stuck in a time-warp”.

When I put this to him, he disagrees, “No, it’s that I work at the business, talk it and PR it. I can’t stand still”.

With that, he’s off to chat to a colleague in another room and I take my leave of the club, heaving with customers on a Friday afternoon, a result, he assures me, of a graduation ceremony nearby and not a permanent population at the 29 on any given afternoon.



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