For those who love pubs, it has been described as a ‘last call to arms’.
Today publicans from across the country, with their loyal supporters and locals behind them, will descend on parliament to demand a Fair Deal for Your Local, an impassioned plea for the government to act to help save them.
For pubcos – combined with a series of poor short-sighted measures introduced by a series of governments, the smoking ban and the bargain-basement prices supermarkets charge for cheap, nasty lager – threaten to make the sight of your familiar, welcoming local a thing of the past.
The all-too-frequently exploitative relationship between large pub companies – organisations like Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns and Green King – and their tenants is something which has been allowed to fester for far too long.
About 20,000 pub tenants across the country have to purchase their beers, wines and spirits exclusively from their pubcos, and in exchange, they are supposed to benefit from lower rents.
Instead, far too frequently tenants are hit with above market-level rents, making their costs crippling forcing them out of business. A good recent example is the Chequers Inn in Whitney, the Prime Minister’s constituency. After twelve years landlord Simon Moore called it a day in May. While his annual turnover averaged around £230,000 a year, his rent to Enterprise Inns amounted to almost 40 per cent of this.
The reasons for these sky-high rents are various but a key factor is pubcos realised the inherent value of their property stock during the boom years and leveraged absurdly to expand their portfolios. When the credit crunch hit they were left with huge debts to manage.
But it is not just high rents which has heaped pressure on pubs. Selling pubs is frequently seen as a way out by pubcos. Tales of pubs being allowed to decay, driving away punters, until they are no longer financially viable, are legion. And the sector keenest to take advantage of this fire sale have been supermarkets.
It is not the fault of the likes of Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s. Why wouldn’t they be keen to get hold of prominent landmark buildings, well known locally and crowbar in a convenience store?
An edition of the London Drinker last year, the CAMRA magazine which can be found in many of the capital’s good pubs, highlighted this problem. The piece, by Roger Warhurst, began by saying: ‘Fifty London pubs have been converted or redeveloped for supermarket convenience stores since 2010, generally without the need for owners to seek planning permission for change of use.’
A pub’s licences are the real beauty for supermarkets. Large pubs frequently have all that is required – especially alcohol licences.
A recent victim of this loophole is the beautiful George IV pub in Brixton which Lambeth Council’s planning committee narrowly voted in favour of allowing to be turned into a Tesco Metro in May.
The only aspect of the application councillors could really object to was the installation of a disabled ramp – described by one as ‘zigzagging across the front of the building like a mark of Zorro' – and whether it was in keeping with a fine Victorian building. Of course it wasn’t, but as a pub is currently not viewed as viable the committee was left with the choice of an empty building or a shop. That the pub had been registered as a community asset as part of the government’s risible ‘localism’ agenda was of little import.
Today CAMRA have published research providing more evidence how pubcos are squeezing the life out of publicans. As many as 60 per cent of licensees tied to the big pub companies earn less than £10,000 a year, compared to only 25 per cent of the free of tie lessees. And at the other end of the scale, only one in a hundred tied pub licensees earn a salary of more than £45,000 a year, compared with one in five who run free of tie pubs.
So today, the pub trade gather. The government proposes reforms which could ensure tied lessees would be no worse off than those not tied, applying to all pub firms that have more than 500 pubs. It could be the start of a revival. With their parliamentary champions, like Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland and indefatigable campaigners like @Lifelandlady , we should stand beside them and make sure the coalition delivers on its promises.