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Wetherspoon speeds up pub openings

JD WETHERSPOON, the fast-growing pubs operator whose shares have halved this year, yesterday shrugged off fears of an economic slowdown with plans to accelerate its pub opening programme.

The company, which specialises in no-frills pubs with low prices, has obtained licensing permission for 91 new pubs in the coming year, compared to 68 new outlets last year.

Tim Martin, Wetherspoon's chairman said: "We traded well in the last recession when we trebled our profits. Our value-for-money offer means that people trade down to us."

Wetherspoon currently has 252 pubs and plans to open around 80 a year to take its total estate to round 1,000.

Mr Martin denied that the pub market was reaching saturation point after rapid opening programmes by the major players. He said consumers' appetite for themed pubs "which all look the same" might be waning but that there was plenty of room for expansion in other areas of the market.

The news comes a day after Regent Inns said it too was pressing ahead with its expansion programme.

However, Whitbread has indicated that it will rein back spending on high street pubs as it does not want to be over-exposed to weakening consumer spending.

Wetherspoon has admitted that it will be opening few "mega-pubs," but will favour smaller outlets. Many if these will be in suburban locations rather than busy city centres.

Mr Martin also admitted that he is cautious about the outlook on margins as price rises would be difficult to achieve in the current environment.

He was speaking as Wetherspoon reported a 15 per cent increase in pre- tax profits to pounds 20.2m for the year to 2 August. Analysts' forecasts started the year at pounds 26m but had to be continually downgraded as Wetherspoon was hit by a series of problems.

It suffered during the World Cup because its pubs did not have televisions. It was also hit by higher staff costs and the decision to introduce larger, lined glasses.

But like-for-like sales still grew by 2.2 per cent during the year, though this has slid to a 1 per cent decline in current trading. Wetherspoon blamed the fall on a poor first two weeks in July.

The shares closed 7p lower at 160.5p.