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The death of community pubs

An institution at the centre of many English communities is in danger.
Gareth Young
2 April 2009

Yesterday's press release from ippr contains some sobering statistics for those of us who love our pubs. Across England, in the four years between 2005-2009, a total of 2,707 were lost. Scotland lost 562. And Wales a further 236.

Region/county Number of pubs 2005 Net pubs closed 2005-2009 % pubs closed 2005-2009 West Midlands 6013 -576 -9.6 Scotland 5971 -562 -9.4 North West 8513 -612 -7.2 East Midlands 5259 -356 -6.8 South East 8521 -530 -6.2 Wales 4147 -236 -5.7 East of England 5562 -311 -5.6 Yorkshire and the Humber 6181 -322 -5.2

Hardest hit is the West Midlands, losing a staggering 9.6% of its public houses.

It's no secret that I am a huge fan of pubs, I see pubs as vitally important to both the historic and modern cultural fabric of England, and it breaks my heart to see pubs local to me closing (Just outside Lewes The Abergavenny Arms and The Pumphouse have become dead pubs, both of them the only pub for the respective villages of Rodmell and Cooksbridge). The loss of a village pub is a loss just as great as the loss of the post office, the village shop or the church. Frenchman turned English poet Hilaire Belloc wrote, "When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England". It is a quote that that adorns a thousand beams, usually in gold italics, in pubs the length and breadth of England, and its marketing appeal lies in its simple truth. To sit in a traditional English pub is to connect with generations that have gone before. The English pub is redolent of Englishness: from its architecture; to its furnishings; to the peculiar etiquette of the inhabitants, the games they play, the way they interact and the language they speak.

The pub is not only a national institution - a national icon of importance to our sense of self - it is also, on a local level, the focal point for so many of our communities. The Labour Party correctly ridiculed Thatcher for claiming that there was no such thing as society, but how can Labour claim to support society if people can no longer interact with neighbours and strangers in a social setting?

The willful destruction of our pubs represents the atomisation of society, it is a cultural loss on a national scale and a loss to our society and communities at a local level. The booze aisle of Tescos does not and cannot sate the human need for social interaction, nor will it ever fulfill the same community function as our local pub.

The ippr argues that the Government should 'take urgent action to support' community pubs. This recommendation is to be welcomed, but sadly, for many people, any action will be much too little far too late. Yesterday, upon reading the press release, a pub landlord (an ex-landlord to be exact) contacted me today through the 'Alistair Darling You’re Barred' Facebook Group. This is his testimony.

 

My pub is one of them! I lost my Freehouse in January. In court bankrupt tomorrow after 13 years as the owner/landlord of this first class locals pub. I have lost everything. The loss to this community is huge and to me everything. 21 years with the Royal Air Force brought me a 60k Lump Sum – Gone. And now I can't even claim Job Seekers because of my £90 per week pension. I’m homeless.

The Wheatsheaf Inn has been around since 1870. My tenure has been for the last 13 years. Until 2000 it provided a good living for me and my family. But since then trade has suffered a year on year decline which accelerated incredibly in the last two years. Reasons: Greed of government, greed of the supermarkets, the greed of Rupert Murdoch (quoted £9,000 to show Sky), the smoking ban. Once the governement and the supermarkets squeezed the customers home other incentives turned up to keep them there -- Wii and now the Credit Crunch. Over the last 5 years in particular the news media, particularly Sky, have constantly ranted about pubs and binge drinking, NEVER once explaining that well run community pubs are actually the last bastion of controlled drinking. Where is the control once the drink has left the door of the supermarket or off licence? I would be interested to hear of just how many MP's have interest in the "leisure" companies who run the town centre horrors! All this against a back drop of spiralling cost of administration and a new licensing regime which was ill thought through, destructive and expensive

The future of community pubs is worse than bleak... it is the end of hundreds of years of a singularly British Institution. I would like Gordon Brown to meet the villagers who relied on this pub for their welfare and community spirit. I am now homless and bankrupt – Steve

Steve’s story is sadly all too familiar. It’s a tale of personal tragedy but also a sad story for the regulars who frequented his pub, not to mention those who popped in for a drink and some food whilst travelling. Gone is a family pub with it’s well-tended bar and garden. Gone is a livelihood. Gone too is the pub football team, the numerous skittles teams, the pub raffle, the notice board, the dj-night, the folk music and the pool team.

It’s a story that is being repeated up and down the country, to such an extent that ‘dead pub’ spotting has become the new in-car sport for the hungry and thirsty traveller, that’s if you can still find an old English coaching inn.

The main problem for community pubs has come from the aggressive pricing of PubCos and increasing industry costs, not least the cost of the alcohol itself especially when measured against supermarket prices. The Licencing Act 2003 (England and Wales) along with the increasing threat of noise abatement orders, allowing local authorities to tap pubs to fill their own coffers, has not helped. Changes in drinking habits, exascerbated by the smoking ban and the widening price differential between supermarket and pub, have deepened the crisis.

The ippr report takes a 'pub is the hub' approach, citing the community aspect of Britain's public houses. I think it's an approach that will find widespread public support. More often than not ippr recommendations find a warmer welcome from the left wing of British politics. However, with the Conservatives and UKIP both running their own campaigns to save the pub, I hope that they will be able to use this report to help reverse the cultural vandalism being perpetrated against our pubs by the Labour Government.

The British Pub and Beer Association have their own non-partisan 'Axe the Tax' campaign which I urge pub-lovers to support.

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