Monday, 17 November 2014

Will MPs finally vote to challenge pubcos?

Parliament has been treading water for some months now; MPs spending more time grinding teeth, impatient for the next General Election, than actually participating in worthwhile debates.

But tomorrow, MPs have an opportunity to vote for something which might actually make a difference to the lives of thousands of publicans across the country, who claim to have been suffering greatly under the pubco ownership model (for background on this fiendishly complicated issue, see here).

For finally, after years of campaigning, scores of MPs from all parties are set to back an amendment to the Small Business Bill, which will put a 'market rent option' for tenants of large pubcos on to the statute books. This means that landlords who lease their pubs from the biggest pub companies – those which own more than 500 establishments – will be able to have their rents independently reviewed to ensure they are fair.

And the amendment, tabled by the campaign's parliamentary champion Greg Mulholland, Tory Brian Binley and Labour's Adrian Bailey, could also see tenants able to buy their beer from any supplier, rather than be compelled to buy exclusively from their owners at a marked up price.

The issue's complexity has been its worst enemy for it deserves more headlines than it has garnered. The closure of a local pub is frequently a local tragedy; a community loses its heart, a neighbourhood is deprived of a meeting and sharing place. The mass closure of pubs which Britain has witnessed in the last couple of decades is a huge national shame; a vital cultural seam that threads through our whole national consciousness has been neglected and allowed to decay by governments of all colours. In the ten years after 2002, more than 10,000 pubs have closed, a huge number of which were tied pubs.

If passed, the changes might mean some relief for tenants struggling to live on barely £3,000 a year, and those battling not to end up like Stoke Newington's Kirsty Valentine, forced out of The Alma after a rent dispute. It could curb the practice of churn, which sees tenant landlords forced out of their pub, only to be replaced within a couple of weeks.

Getting to this stage has been a slow old process and, for a time, it seemed the coalition might run out of sufficient parliamentary time to pass any legislation. And even now, despite the recommendations from endless committee reports and reams of evidence, the government has resisted these measures when it eventually outlined their proposals to tackle the pubco issues. While Vince Cable proposed a statutory code for pub companies, campaigners have argued it would remain toothless regulation without this ‘market rent option’. 

While, this option has big support amongst publicans and tenants, the pubcos themselves have lobbied hard against the such changes, with eager support from the British Beer and Pub Association. The latter, quoting widely a widely discredited report, claim the measures could lead to more than 1,400 pubs closing and the loss of 7,000 jobs. It's worth remembering that even if this were true - and for such a dire outcome to emerge it would require the wilful and self-destructive connivance of the pub owning companies - this is actually at slower rate than the current rate of 31 pubs closing every week, according to CAMRA. I do wonder who the BBPA imagine they represent; pubs or pubcos?

Support for the amendment is strong on the Labour benches and has wide backing among the Conservative benches - curiously not including Burton MP Andrew Griffiths, who has been something of an ally of the pubcos - and the Liberal Democrats. Victory for the campaigners must feel unnervingly, worryingly close. But, the government could still defeat the rebels and it has to make its way through the House of Lords; so this long-running saga has some way to go yet.

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