As Camra launches a new campaign Chris Rundle points out not all pubs are worth saving.
I have every sympathy for the Campaign for Real Ale. Without it – and without the dedication of its members – we would all still have no option but to drink Whitbread Tankard or Watney’s Red Barrel, two of the foulest concoctions ever to be sold under the description of ‘beer’.
It is doubtful whether we should ever have awakened the British craft brewing industry from the dead. And it follows that it is unlikely in the extreme that we would be able to enjoy the choice that available from the dynamic network of small and medium size breweries which flourish today.
Camra has put the flavour back into British beers and ales and it has restored them to their rightful place on the bar top. Applause all round.
Sadly, however it has shot somewhat wide of the mark with its latest appeal to save the survivors in Britain’s dwindling pub sector: a call to local authorities to use the law to prevent unprofitable or redundant pubs being turned into supermarkets, shops or other businesses: a process which at the moment is made ludicrously simple by the absence of any obligation to obtain planning consent.
What has sparked this intervention are new figures showing that 31 pubs are now closing every week – five more than was the case last year.
Some of those pubswill not be missed. They were dirty, noisy and malodorous, as indeed was the clientele. They had not been modernised. They were not well-run. They could not keep their beer properly. If any food was served it was only what could be prepared using a microwave. They played loud music incessantly and the only relief obtained from that was when the 48-inch screen telly showed football.
Others, many in country areas have gone to the wall merely as a result of sweeping changes in retailing, particularly the way in which alcohol is sold. When I was growing up if you wanted booze you had two choices. You either went to the pub or you went to the off-licence (which didn’t trade anyway on Sundays) and bought it to drink at home.
Liberalising the alcohol laws put booze aisles in every supermarket since when millions of people have discovered that it’s more enjoyable to have a drink or two at home rather than to have to turn out in the rain and hack to the pub.
So changing times and changing buying habits have consigned many pubs to history along with many thousands of ‘traditional’ high streets shops.
The era of the supermarket has brought huge benefits, in terms of choice, availability and prices. But for us to achieve them (as well as the sheer convenience of being able to buy everything under one roof and on one trip) there has been a trade-off and pubs, sadly, feature rather highly on the casualty list.
But forcing owners to apply for planning consent for a change of use won’t save a single pub, won’t do anything to stem the economic current which is still leading to closures. All it is likely to achieve is to litter the land with dead and decaying buildings until such time as the planning authorities are obliged to relent and approve a change of use.
If Camra really wants to get its teeth into a campaign it should be directing its gaze to the corporate-owned pubs, the ones which have been snapped up by property companies with an eye to redevelopment potential, in which scenario the landlord only exists to keep the place warm and maximise the returns until the redevelopment contractors are called in.
A friend’s son has taken on one such pub, one of a portfolio hastily accrued by a property company at the beginning of the current wave of closures. The company borrowed heavily to finance the acquisitions and is now saddled with considerable debt problems.
Had he read the small print in the contract, or had it scrutinised by a decent solicitor, it is unlikely he would have signed up to a deal whereby he has to buy all his beer from the landlord – which applies a mark-up to every single barrel once it leaves the brewery, thus trousering a large proportion of the profit that should have gone into the pub’s tills.
But he is now discovering to his further cost just how devious such landlords can be in extracting more money from a tenant – particularly when they themselves are under the financial cosh.
Prior to one bank holiday weekend he submitted his beer order. It failed to arrive, despite frantic phone calls. Faced with the prospect of his pumps running dry he hoofed it round to a local brewery and bought a few kegs direct, just to see him over the weekend.
His original order arrived on the Tuesday, closely followed by the owners’ regional manager, who demanded to know why unauthorised beer was being sold. The explanation was offered. A couple of days later my friend’s son received a letter informing him that he had been in breach of contract by buying and selling beer other than that supplied by the landlord, and was being ‘fined’ £5,000. Oh, and there would be another £1,200 to cover ‘legal costs’.
Fancy running a pub?