Death to the Pub, Long Live the Pub

A few months back I was talking to the plumber and he was lamenting the opening of a JD Weatherspoon’s public house in his small Lincolnshire town. From the rant that followed I gathered that this was a disaster of epic proportions. It seemed that from his point of view the opening of this national corporate chain of pubs spelled the death knell to his local and most of the real pubs in the town.

He suggested that the traditional pubs could not compete on price and did not have the money to invest in the fixtures and fittings. Indeed, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), last year 29 pubs were closing down every week.

Closures are being blamed on factors such as high taxes on beer, competition from supermarkets selling cheap alcohol, and in urban areas even changing demographics, such as an increase in the Muslim community. Other reasons cited included the smoking ban and more awareness of the dangers of drink-driving.

In response to some of these claims, last year CAMRA started a campaign to persuade people to nominate their local pub as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) under a Government scheme. Currently pubs can be demolished or converted to other uses without planning permission, whereas pubs with ACV status are given planning protection under laws introduced in last April.

So far this campaign has met with some success, with the rate of pub closures falling to as little as 21 pubs a week. Back in December the Dyke Pub & Kitchen in Brighton was saved from being a furniture shop after locals rallied and slapped an ACV listing on it.

Although not all publicans are thrilled with this approach, according to the Morning Advertiser one landlord branded campaigners as ‘hypocrites’ in response to his pub getting an ACV listing. He is reported as saying that the only way to save a pub is to put cash behind the bar.

Perhaps this is the point. Maybe, and I struggle with this concept here, some pubs deserve to die. Many of the pubs that end up closed are in areas where people have money to spend. They just don’t want to spend it in a place with bad wine, indifferent beer, in an environment that has less atmosphere than the moon.

One of my not so minor passions is the pub.  Generally speaking I would rather drink in a good pub than at home. But confronted with a choice of ‘red or white luv,’ and Sarson’s on tap, in pub with  dayglow walls where all character has been studiously removed, then I will rethink that choice. Especially when these are all indifferently served under a PVC banner proclaiming Sky Sports,

The pub has changed, for a good pub people will pay more so long as the product is right. A pub that respects its heritage and is women friendly can still do well. In the end the smoking ban has attracted as many as it has put off.

A case in point, the pubs in my plumber’s small Lincolnshire town seemed not only to have survived, but they have thrived with competition. There are now three or four pubs worth a look, where once I barely tolerated one.

Not that we can be complacent.  In my old stomping ground in London there was a great pub with characterful corners and little nooks. It was always crowded and it served some of the best beer in North London. Then the brewery accountants stuck there noses in. First they challenged the beer. The landlord’s choices weren’t on their computers apparently. Then some bright spark worked out that a pub with such a huge turnover could be improved by increasing the floor space. Out went the little corners, the nooks and eventually the customers.

Sometimes it comes down to this. Why don’t the landlords and brewers ask the basic questions? Do I like pubs? What do I like? Would I drink here?