Over the years, every time I have begun to enjoy or appreciate something about our great nation, it has been either replaced with something inferior or abolished for good. Our great British pubs up and down the country are facing the same fate. A staggering 16 pubs closed each week until the end of December last year according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Something should be done as a matter of urgency.
Our pubs are a quintessential part of our national character and way of life. We should be proud of them, nurture them and protect them, for if they are to disappear altogether, we will deeply lament their loss. It should be in the Conservative Party's DNA always to long for the preservation of our pubs – a cornerstone of British culture.
It is not the city centre pubs that are necessarily facing closure. They always benefit from people who pop in for a drink on their way home from work. It is mostly the old fashioned back street and suburban locals that are under threat which are the focal point of so many communities. Not only are they part of our heritage, but they perform an important community function; bringing people together, having a conversation, looking out for one another. These are the characteristics which aid social cohesion.
We have a problem with alcohol abuse in the UK. There is no doubt about that. But in addition to other measures that are being considered, keeping our pubs open is very much part of the solution. A pub is a controlled drinking environment where bar staff can monitor individual alcohol consumption and turn away anyone who is on the way to becoming incapable. In addition, it is much harder to drink a vast quantity in a small period of time. The environment is more conducive to having a conversation with each other. Talking takes place between sips and there is a delay between drinks when queuing at the bar to purchase the next one. Many pubs have also been successful in introducing food and snacks, which undoubtedly alleviate the effects of continuous drinking over a long period of time. That is why I believe that any increase on beer duty for example should not be a blanket application but that it should be weighted more on supermarkets and off licenses which sell poor quality ultra-high strength alcoholic drinks at an abhorrently low price.
During these tough economic times, I believe that a cut in business rates on pubs would soften some of the burden on struggling landlords and may result in the next generation of aspirant publicans having a greater propensity to rejuvenate and reopen new establishments.
The pub takeover and community buildings scheme announced by Eric Pickles should be expanded and publicised more widely. It gives local communities a voice over the future of their local pub should it be threatened with closure instead of accepting an inevitability of closure. A new team of community activists could adopt the running of such pubs and instil some fresh enthusiasm and vitality to make them successful. There have been several success stories in this regard and perhaps more incentives could be considered so that this mechanism of saving pubs is used more frequently. There should be greater creativity over the functions of a community pub today – especially in rural areas. For example in an area where the local Post Office has closed, it could be the case that a new Post Office counter service could be incorporated within pub premises. Other functions could include internet access and a stock of basic groceries.
There should be fairness for tenants of pub companies who are forced to buy beer from them at highly inflated prices. This in addition to the beer duty is hiking up the cost of drinks to the customers – another big ‘Don’t come in’ message emanating from our pubs. It is not unusual these days to pay £3.50 for a pint of bitter or over £4.00 for a pint of lager in pubs. Further rises are surely not sustainable and will only succeed in giving supermarket alcohol sales a boost together with increasing the risk of binge drinking.
Finally, another factor that would help pubs is an amendment to the smoking ban that would simply allow for the option to have separate smoking rooms in pubs that wanted to have them depending on their clientele’s demand. This is not about blowing smoke in people’s faces but for those who want to have a cigarette with a drink, I do not think it is unreasonable that a separate indoor area is available to them which do not affect non-smoking drinkers and staff. Pub closures started well before the smoking ban but there has been an undoubted acceleration in pub closures since the ban was introduced. It is not the only reason for pub closures but is a significant factor. I think it is worth looking at this again.
We need a five point action plan immediately to save our great pubs:
- Cut duty on alcoholic beverages that are sold and consumed on pub premises – Any increase on alcohol duty should be on supermarkets and off-licenses only.
- A cut in business rates for pubs – High business rates could be a deal breaker when it comes to aspiring publicans wanting to start up.
- An expansion of Eric Pickles's community take-over initiative of redundant buildings such as pubs. This should be more widely promoted and greater incentives should be put in place for this idea to flourish.
- Tighter regulation over beer rates set by pub companies charged to their tenants. Large pub companies are selling beer to their tenants at inflated above-market prices. And the 'beer-tie' means that these tenants are contractually forced to buy beer from the pub companies rather than on the open market.
- Pursue an amendment to the smoking ban that allows landlords to have an option to create well ventilated separate smoking rooms which do not affect non-smokers and pub staff.
These measures would significantly reduce the burden on pub landlords and go some way to significantly slowing down the rate of pub closures whilst possibly inducing the reopening of several that have recently faced closure.
An urgent, coherent strategy is needed to save the Great British Pub.