Climb the EC booze mountain: New single-market allowances may be a mixed blessing, reports Nick Cohen

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In five days' time, previously illicit pleasures will become cheap and legal near the Calais dockside. The abolition of border controls and the introduction of the European Community single market on 1 January will enable any adult to go to France and bring back a small mountain of booze without being troubled by Her Majesty's Customs.

British drinks companies are alarmed that their business will be undermined by a flood of wine, beer and spirits bought at a third of UK prices. In the run-up to the Budget in March they will warn the Treasury that if it does not follow the Danish example and cut duty, jobs in pubs and off-licences will be lost.

At first glance, these fears seem soundly based. From 1 January, any day-tripper will be entitled to collect 90 litres (120 bottles) of wine, 110 litres (194 pints) of beer, 10 litres of spirits, 30 litres of fortified wine, 800 cigarettes, 400 cigarillos and 200 cigars. These are the amounts a generous Customs service has ruled is a 'reasonable amount for personal consumption'.

But there is no limit to the number of trips you can make. And even if you bring in more, you will not necessarily be penalised. You may merely have to prove that you are not a commercial importer planning to sell Continental drink in Britain.

However, a logistical problem may yet save the booze industry: when the tourists get to France they could find it all but impossible to get the full allowance home.

Coach operators said last week that, contrary to press reports, they had no plans to run hundreds of day-trips to the hypermarkets of Calais in the new year. Their lack of interest was highlighted at the December meeting of the Bus and Coach Council, the operators' trade association, where representatives of virtually all the big coach companies said that Department of Transport weight restrictions prohibited them bringing back large amounts of drink.

'Most coach companies already limit a passenger to two cases of beer,' said Steve Rooney, the council's senior public affairs officer. 'The Department of Transport has told us that there will be spot-checks at weighing stations off the motorways and A- roads of Kent. As much as we may want to carry drink for our customers, we simply won't be able to travel legally on the road if people start collecting their full ration.'

Private car users will face the same difficulty. As Majestic Wine Warehouses showed us, even a family with a Volvo Estate - a favoured car for the middle-classes - could not begin to get the new drinks allowance for three people into the back.

P&O, the ferry operator, said it had seen no evidence that the single market would lead to a cross-Channel spending spree. 'Our bookings are up in January,' a spokeswoman said, 'but the increase is in line with a rise in traffic this year. We don't think there are going to be hundreds of thousands of new shoppers crossing the Channel.'

The obstacles are, therefore, large, but the rewards to the valiant are great. Beer in France is taxed at 1.5p a pint; the British Treasury takes 32p a pint. A bottle of Cotes du Rhone wine costing pounds 3.65 in Britain is pounds 1.15 in Calais. There are two ways to get at it. The most obvious is to hire a van. Even taking into account the cost of a day ferry trip to Calais, lunch for two, petrol and hire charges, a driver from southern England could still save about pounds 300 by buying the full quota of beer, wine and spirits.

Alternatively, one can seek out the few coach firms with the courage to exploit the single market. One such is The Kings Ferry, of Gillingham, Kent, run by Peter O'Neill.

Mr O'Neill, whose fleet of 55 coaches already makes shopping trips to the French Channel ports, estimates that the Customs guidelines will allow each passenger to bring back half a ton of goods. A 40-seat coach filled to capacity would thus need to cope with 20 tons of bottles and cans. To take the weight, Mr O'Neill has decided that his new drinkers' specials will be followed by hired lorries when they head to France.

The next problem was how to deal with the lorries once they had been loaded by forklift truck in the hypermarkets.

'The lorry drivers will have to stick with the coaches all the way or they'll be caught at Dover with a hell of a lot of booze,' Mr O'Neill said. 'We're also going to have to find warehousing space to unload which can act as a pick-up point. We can't go round the houses emptying gear at every stop.

'To tell you the truth, I've got another worry. The trips to France aren't a popular one with the drivers. The punters tend to overdo it a bit, they get drunker and drunker as the day goes on.'

However, negotiations have begun to find a warehouse in Kent and the drivers' anxieties have been soothed by the thought that when the lorry system is set up they will no longer have rowdy customers arguing with them about how much alcohol they can take on to the coach.

After appearing on local television, Mr O'Neill has had numerous inquiries - including one from a group of pub landlords who want to make a weekly run. But he expects his main business, as in the past, to come from the middle-aged and elderly.

'You'd be surprised at the type of people who go,' he said. 'It's not unusual to see a little old lady pushing a trolley overflowing with wine and brandy out of the hypermarket.'

But he regards the system he is exploiting as silly: 'The local brewery here is exporting beer that sells for pounds 1.40 to Calais so English people can pick it up in France for 70p. It's a bloody ludicrous situation. Still, I'm not going to complain.'

His drink runs to France will start early next year at a charge of about pounds 40 a head.

(Photograph omitted)