Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis
Nothing has signaled the cruel abeyance of normal life under a year of lockdown than the closure of our pubs. Most of us, I am sure, walk past our shuttered inns with a sense of sad longing. For my part, I find myself craning in the windows of the deserted pubs I pass, hoping to see stirrings of life, that behind-the-scenes preparations are being made for their much longed for reopening. Anticipating that we will one day be able to walk in off the street, casual as you like for that cheeky pint, troop in for a well-planned Sunday lunch with the family or sidle in of an evening for a midweek pub quiz with the regular irregulars.
Put simply, where there’s a pub, there’s a community. And in considering how we renew the nation economically and socially from the scarring of Covid-19, the pub is a central hub in countless cities, towns and villages from which the spokes of recovery will radiate.
Last week’s Budget gave the pub and beer industry a short-term shot in the arm with much needed additional grants, as well as extensions to the job retention scheme, five per cent hospitality VAT rate and business rates holiday.
In the medium to long-term, however, the future of the public house as a cornerstone of community life remains under existential threat without additional well-targeted support.
Throughout 2020, hospitality as an industry and particularly the pub sector were not considered fairly or their venue safety accurately in previous iterations of social restrictions. For example, the transmission risk of pubs was treated far more seriously than in non-essential retail, and the restrictions placed on the businesses more onerous. Inconsistent messaging and a sense of moving goalposts frustrated the sector and drained the financial reserves of publicans and breweries.
Aside from the economic impact of the lockdown on pubs, their closure has had a wider impact on community cohesion up and down the country. Pubs form a vital part of social infrastructure in place and are anchors that tie the community together. This is particularly true for rural towns and villages. As one of the biggest contributors to the UK economy, the sector has a vital role to play in the recovery and levelling up journey of the country as well as in maintaining community cohesion and social resilience well beyond the pandemic.
Writing in 1912, Hilaire Belloc warned: “change your hearts or you will lose your inns and you will deserve to have lost them”. Should such a calamity unfold, Belloc added that “you will have lost the last of England”.
And what is at stake here is more than the intangible, “going, going gone” of what was once the heartbeat of British life. Failure to support the nation’s pubs return from lockdown risks imperilling the government’s levelling up agenda for economic and social renewal.
This is in large part due to the economic and social vitality of the sector, as well as its potential importance to recovery and growth. Pubs support 884,860 jobs across the UK, £12.1 billion of wages, and £23.4 billion of gross value added across the country. They are a key part of the foundational economy, the essential building blocks of growth in our cities and towns. In our report issued today entitled The Power of Pubs – protecting social infrastructure and laying the groundwork for levelling up’ Localis argues it is vital that the lockdown roadmap is not allowed to slip back further for pubs, and that the commitment to end all trading restrictions by 21 June must be delivered to return all pubs to viable trading.
Without such assurances and medium-term support to help place the pub sector at the foundations of a strong recovery, local economies and community resilience in left-behind parts of the country – including ‘blue wall’ former industrial heartlands, rural and coastal areas – would be particularly hit.
Research shows that a lack of places to meet, whether they be community centres, pubs, or villages is a significant determinant to social and economic outcomes for deprived communities. Areas of deprivation that lack these community assets have higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and poor health than others, leading to them being ‘left behind’.
As signposted in the Budget, working to avoid the further closure of community assets in left behind areas and ensuring that these areas directly benefit from the levelling up agenda has to be the government’s priority moving into recovery. Especially given the overlap between the left behind areas and the red wall seats won in the last general election in areas including Blyth and Newton Aycliffe.
So among our recommendations today, Localis is urging central government to further reduce the tax burden on the pub sector to aid the recovery and calls for an extension to the Business and Planning Act 2020.
Local councils should be directed to help pubs by issuing licence fee refunds – paid for by the Treasury – for the six months to June 2021, through business support grants. Additionally, where premises have been put to new community purposes during the pandemic, councils should offer a diversification grant to pubs looking to retain or expand the services they provided during lockdown.
A Britain denuded of its pubs wouldn’t be a country we would want to recognise. Perhaps, as in G.K. Chesterton’s fantasy novel “The Flying Inn”, there would be a rogue mobile pub, roaming ‘the rolling English road’ to keep the spirit of what we had lost alive. Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that. And when we do reopen, mine’s a pint.