Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2016
If people truly value pubs, they may have to stump up to save them
IN THE CENTRE of many English villages, you will find a pub and a church standing opposite each other, which are seen as institutions that define the character of the place. The problem, though, is that affection alone does not put any money over the bar or in the collection plate, and too many people, while they may like to see them there, don’t use them enough.
It’s often argued that pubs are just like any other retail business and, if they’re not successful, the best thing is to shut them down and replace them with something else. Few are likely to mourn the demise of a trendy bar in the ground floor of an office block, or a family dining pub on a retail park. But some pubs mean much more to people than that – they become part of the community, memories of good times and past landlords are handed down from generation to generation, and they are valued as a local resource even by people who don’t visit them much. Pubs, after all, are about the only kind of business that people actually visit to spend time socialising.
Some of the more strident “Save the Pub” campaigners seem to view the decline of pubs as the result of an unholy combination of asset-stripping pub companies, greedy developers, apathetic councils and lax planning laws. There’s something in this, and pub companies certainly can’t be regarded as model businesses, but these activists ignore the all too real long-term decline in the demand for pubs. At the end of the day, you can’t force operators to keep businesses going that they don’t regard as viable. Making a pub an Asset of Community Value may give it a stay of execution, but unless someone comes in to take it on, it won’t preserve it indefinitely.
The inevitable conclusion is that, if communities are sufficiently concerned about wanting to save endangered pubs, they will have to grasp the nettle and put up the money to take them on themselves. This may seem a daunting financial prospect, but a growing number of pubs have been saved this way. The government has now come up with a £3.6 million Community Pub Ownership scheme, which will provide loans, grants and expertise to assist with the process. It seems as though community-owned pubs will become an increasingly important part of the drinking landscape in the coming years. However, it’s important to get a tenant or manager in to run the place in a professional manner, rather than having amateurs arguing about the fine detail of the beer range and menu.
There is a precedent for this in the form of the National Trust which, from small beginnings, has expanded to have over four million members and to be custodians of hundreds of precious historic buildings, including a handful of pubs. In a sense, unspoilt pubs could be regarded as “the people’s stately homes”. You could also consider the amount of time and money that has been expended over the years on preserved steam railways.
It wouldn’t necessarily need any kind of national organisation, but there could be benefits from creating some kind of umbrella body, maybe on a regional basis, so individual groups do not have to stand alone. Maybe, for some pubs, the business potential might be very limited, and they end up only opening for a few hours a week and being staffed by volunteers, but that would be far better than no pub at all. Pubs are a key part of our national heritage and identity, and should be valued as such rather than purely considered as commercial operations.