An Open Letter to CAMRA members

Revitalisation? CAMRA needs a refocus – it needs change of direction and a change of leadership.

Dear fellow CAMRA members,

I am unfortunately unable to join you in Bournemouth for the AGM, something I had hoped to do – but with the location and existing family commitments with it being school Easter holidays, I can’t make it. I am sure it will be an interesting weekend.

I have been a CAMRA member now for nigh on 25 years, far longer than I have been a continual member of any other organisation. 25 years is nearly 90% of my time as an adult drinker, able legally to drink beer and to visit our treasured and iconic community institutions, our Great British pubs.

My first CAMRA beer festival was in York in 1988 at the old Assembly Rooms, alas like so many of our wonderful pubs, now a restaurant!  I was 18 years old. I still have my pint glass, I also gave one to my Dad, also a CAMRA member and the person who introduced me to pubs and to real ale all those years ago.

I am writing because I am now so dismayed at the direction of our organisation (or rather the lack of any real direction and certainly little effective action) on the key issues affecting our pubs. Considering I joined CAMRA because I love pubs (as well as real ale) this is sad to have to write – but it is because of that fact and because I have been a CAMRA member for so long that I have to.  I am also concerned, as many other CAMRA members are who I have spoken to or who have contacted me, with the style, attitude and priorities of CAMRA’s leadership and as a result, of CAMRA HQ. CAMRA members are not being well served at the moment.

As with many CAMRA members and sector observers, I have seen a fundamental change in CAMRA’s campaigning output, attitude and acumen over the last 18 months. I had rather presumed that this was due to the ‘revitalisation’ project and this taking up time that had caused CAMRA nationally to lose its focus. I thought it was just that CAMRA had lost its way (which it has). I now realise that instead it is being misled. It is being misled up the wrong path and in the wrong direction and one that if followed will destroy CAMRA’s essence as a campaigning membership organisation and a positive force saving pubs.

CAMRA is in an existential crisis, but not because of ‘craft beer’, because of leadership wholly unsuited to a mass membership campaigning organisation (not my words actually, they are the words are a very senior figure who told me this, but in confidence). So I fear that whatever debates there are at the AGM about certain issues, including the debate on kinds of beer, the real issue and fundamental problem will be a very large and (carbonated or not) elephant in the room, which is that things are not right at St. Albans and that the wrong person is leading CAMRA the wrong way.

Of course I make clear that the problems are at, and with, CAMRA HQ and not CAMRA branches and members. Indeed like so many organisations, it is the local foot soldiers and the day to day activists on the ground who are the real heroes of the pub sector, who save and support our pubs on a weekly basis. Yet whilst branches and active members do such a brave job of fighting pub closures, criticising the ongoing exploitation of licensees tied to the large pub companies and trying to stop supermarkets and developers destroying our pubs, CAMRA HQ have been weak and ineffective and worse still, have deliberately turned their back on some of the key issues and problems damaging and closing pubs.

Even more disappointingly, CAMRA HQ have acted with a worrying lack of integrity over a number of issues. Members and branches deserve much better that that. The attitude (which seems to stem from the top) is to try to airbrush things & brush others under the carpet to save CAMRA HQ from embarrassment, not to do what is right, not to stand up for CAMRA members and not to stand up for pubs.

Over the last year and a half, I have seen CAMRA HQ all but give up on their previously powerful campaigning on some of the main issues affecting pubs. CAMRA has been inept on the crisis of business rates, half-hearted on the campaign to end permitted development rights for pubs (ignoring the first vote in December, then not being honest about why they did so) and embarrassingly silent as the Co-op have breached their weak and failed ‘agreement’ signed off by CAMRA HQ in 2015. As CAMRA branches and members have been fighting against this most predatory of supermarket chains when it comes to targeting and closing pubs, CAMRA HQ have been more interested in saving face than saving pubs and have stayed silent even when the Co-op broke their word given to MPs at a Save the Pub meeting (in front of a senior member of CAMRA staff who has shamefully remained silent despite knowing this). CAMRA members and branches must force CAMRA HQ to ditch this failed agreement for it is not only giving cover to the Co-op for their pub destruction, but it is bringing our organisation into disrepute.

Most notably, perhaps, CAMRA HQ, under the current unsuitable leadership, have as good as left the pitch when it comes to actually standing up for pubs and publicans over the Pubs Code they were so keen to try and take all the credit for. Alas since the vote in 2014, CAMRA HQ have not only failed to continue to campaign on pubco reform, to ensure that the legislation actually works (which is clearly essential) but members (and indeed National Executive members) may be shocked to know that they have actually undermined it.

From first of all misunderstanding then misrepresenting the agreed position of the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign (and then refusing to ask the Government to protect pubco tenants who break free of the beer tie from exorbitant rents) to then wanting to turn their backs on the campaign entirely. The fact is that CAMRA HQ, despite being so keen to try to take all the credit for the vote in 2014 and the introduction of the Code, have done nothing of worth to seek to ensure the Pubs Code actually works and the Adjudicator is doing his job[1]. It isn’t and he isn’t, yet CAMRA HQ do and say nothing and refuse to speak out despite the reality of the situation and the fact that the conflicted Adjudicator, who isn’t adjudicating, is undermining the code that CAMRA members fought so hard for.

Despite the fact that the successful Fair Deal for Your Local campaign was one backed by a coalition of organisations and was not led by CAMRA, disgracefully CAMRA HQ sneakily nominated themselves alone for an award for its successful outcome. When this was brought to the attention of the other organisations and was then flagged up with the organisers of the awards, CAMRA HQ had the opportunity to resubmit a joint one, but refused and instead threw their toys out of the pram and withdrew their nomination!

Perhaps worst of all, from a campaigning perspective at least, they fundamentally and significantly undermined the ongoing and vitally important campaign, by refusing to hand over the list of Fair Deal for Your Local supporters, i.e. people that had signed up to support the campaign, not CAMRA.  This has prevented the ongoing campaign from seeking support in lobbying MPs when needed (matters which of course CAMRA HQ have done nothing on themselves).

All in all, it is very sad that such a proud organisation with an impressive campaigning history now has come to this and has many of its activists and former associates feeling so betrayed and dismayed.

It has become clear that much of the change of direction of CAMRA HQ and its failure and change of heart on key pub issues is down to the person and people who are paid to carry out the will of the members.  Above all, it has also become clear that CAMRA has a Chief Executive who is utterly unsuited to the role of leading a membership campaigning organisation and as such is ignoring the membership and watering down and sidestepping the core campaigning on the issues that really matter.

Mike Benner was going to be a hard act to follow and Mike was someone who was prepared to say what needed to be said and to direct staff to campaign outside of their comfort zone, which was essential to the success of the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign. Since then, the approach far from revitalising anything has been a much more conservative as well as ineffective one.

When I first met Tim Page, in my office, I was keen to work with him (as the MP who has done more than any other on pub issues over the last few years) and believed we would. I certainly wanted to give him every chance to show that he was the right person to lead CAMRA. I was, however, perturbed by his odd comment to me that he had been joking with his friends about how lucky he was to have landed a plum job working in beer and pubs, ho ho. There was a strong sense that he saw this as something of a jolly and not as the hugely serious and important role of fronting what was the nation’s leading consumer campaigning organisation.

Alas, it seems those fears of mine were well founded. This was exposed early on, when Neil Carmichael MP posed with campaigners and promised to vote for the Market Rent Only option in 2014, yet then voted against it after caving in to pressure from whips[2]. Quite rightly he was lambasted by Tim Mars from Stroud CAMRA who was rightly incensed at the MP’s barefaced lack of integrity over this vote. So what did Tim Page do? He came down on Tim Mars like a ton of bricks. So, far from standing up for CAMRA branches and activists, he instead censured one for quite rightly criticising a politician who had let them down and been untrustworthy. That speaks volumes about Tim Page and his attitude towards CAMRA’s foot soldiers and what CAMRA is.

Tim Page has appeared keen to ingratiate himself with pubco PR people and various “industry” big wigs and seems more interested in being one of the important people in the “industry” than actually leading a dynamic campaigning membership organisation hungry to fight for change, to protect and preserve pubs and to take on those who undermine and close them.  At the same time as hosting cosy private dinners in the House of Commons and falling all too comfortably into the backslapping culture that has done so much damage to pubs and publicans, Tim Page also hugely alienated publican campaigners and tenant representative associations and has treated organisations like the Pubs Advisory Service with contempt.

Yet when Anna Soubry, the awful yet arrogant Minister who signed off Paul Newby’s appointment, cited CAMRA as being a tenant representing group who backed Paul Newby, CAMRA HQ chose to say nothing despite knowing both that they are not and never have been a licensee organisation and that this intervention would assist the conflicted and disastrous Mr Newby to stay in place. It is things like this that have made people question who CAMRA HQ think they represent.

I know that there is serious disquiet in CAMRA about Tim Page’s style of leadership and the focus and output of CAMRA HQ. I have heard those from some well-known and high profile national CAMRA figures. The key theme is that Tim is simply not suited to leading a membership organisation, he instead wants to try to dictate the direction of CAMRA and to criticise and side-line those who don’t agree.

I have spoken to and had conversations with leading lights in some of the most active and proactive branches and some key activists have felt harried or silenced, reprimanded and belittled for expressing any concern that CAMRA nationally are not focused on, or campaigning for, the right and most important things (let alone mention the unsuitability of the leadership). Lots of people in CAMRA know this is a huge problem, yet so far no one has yet been prepared to speak out so as is often the case, that falls to muggins here. Someone has to.

We all make mistakes and Tim Page’s appointment was a big one. For CAMRA as an organisation, if this mistake is not rectified, it could be disastrous. I know long term CAMRA members who are so dismayed at CAMRA’s current leadership and focus of activity that they are considering leaving or even starting up a new organisation.

I am sure Tim Page was a great Chief Executive Air Ambulance and at other organisations. But he was a fundamentally wrong choice for Chief Executive of CAMRA and it is time that CAMRA members, like me, expressed that publicly (and not just privately as they are doing now) and it is time that the National Executive listened and acted over concerns about the focus, actions and inactions of CAMRA HQ. Some of those on the NE, privately, have the same concerns, for they too have seen the way CAMRA is being led down the wrong road, failing to campaign on the right things and can see the damage it is doing to our organisation.

I would hope that considering that senior and esteemed figures in CAMRA, some of those legendary names I knew only from What’s Brewing have told me of their dismay that Tim might have the good grace to realise that his style of leadership is wholly unsuited to leading CAMRA and move on.

Either way, it is time for Tim Page to go and it is time for CAMRA HQ to be refocused and yes, revitalised. Revitalised to once again be the strong, proud, dynamic campaigning group that stands up for its members and branches and campaigns for pubs and great British beer and cider without fear or favour and certainly without currying it with people who are damaging and undermining pubs and publicans. It is time for the National Executive to represent members and agree an exit strategy for Tim Page and commence a genuine revitalisation of CAMRA’s focus and output. CAMRA instead needs a Chief Executive who will excel in the most fundamental part of the job, as Mike Benner did, to speak for CAMRA members and to act as the person who represents CAMRA, not the person who tells CAMRA what to do and what to be as it happening now.

Real ale or not real ale? What I want to see is real CAMRA. So it is time for a change of direction and a change of leadership. It’s time to save CAMRA.

Yours ever,

 

Greg Mulholland MP

Top 40 CAMRA Campaigner, 3 times CAMRA national award winner for campaigning, Chair of the British Pub Confederation and founder of the Parliamentary Save the Pub Group @thepubchampion

[1] https://pubchampion.co.uk/2017/04/06/camra-hq-failing-publicans-pubs-by-ignoring-failure-of-pubs-code-and-pubs-code-adjudicator/

[2] http://www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk/mp-branded-treacherous-scumbag-pub-vote-u-turn/story-24668993-detail/story.html

CAMRA HQ failing publicans & pubs by ignoring failure of Pubs Code and Pubs Code Adjudicator

CAMRA headquarters have badly failed licensees of the large pubcos and communities who rely on these pubs by ignoring the clear failure of Pubs Code and the conflicted and compromised Pubs Code Adjudicator, Paul Newby. The criticism has come from leading licensee campaigners who were part of the Fair Deal for Your Local Steering Group and Top 40 CAMRA campaigner & 3 times CAMRA national award winner Greg Mulholland MP, who also chairs the British Pub Confederation and founded the Parliamentary Save the Pub Group.

CAMRA HQ, who do not represent licensees, dropped the issue of pubco reform like a hot stone as soon as the legislation was passed and have failed to monitor the implementation of the Pubs Code, despite being so keen to take credit for the pub sector coalition that achieved the historic success of legislation on this. This is in stark contrast to CAMRA branches who continue to highlight bad behaviour and closures by the large pubcos and the inaction of the conflicted Adjudicator.

Crucially, CAMRA HQ have been silent on the clear conflict of interest of the Pubs Code Adjudicator, Paul Newby and his refusal to adjudicate and uphold the Pubs Code. Mr Newby retains shares in, and has outstanding loans with, his former employers Fleurets who are reliant on the regulated pubcos for at least a quarter of their income!

As was revealed in a recent British Pub Confederation report and a debate in the House of Commons, Paul Newby is failing to adjudicate on key issues and is failing to tackle and stop the ways pubcos are flouting and thwarting the Pubs Code. Even the Minister responsible, Margot James MP, has admitted that, “there have clearly been instances in which the code has been flouted”[1]. Even then, CAMRA HQ have remained silent on this and the way Paul Newby is failing licensees and failing in his important statutory role.

CAMRA HQ were strongly criticised for their self-congratulation over the key legislative vote in 2014, with highly respected beer writer Pete Brown saying “I find it disingenuous that [CAMRA] were so quick to take all the credit”. CAMRA HQ staff also pulled an award nomination that they had made for themselves after it was pointed out to the organisers that the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign was carried out by a coalition and that it wasn’t just CAMRA’s work, nor was it led by CAMRA. The Fair Deal for Your Local campaign went on to be highly commended in another set of awards once a proper and honest nomination was made, by the rest of the Fair Deal coalition.

Mark Dodds, founder member of the Fair Pint Campaign, the original group set up to campaign for pubco reform, said:

“CAMRA HQ’s refusal to take a stand on pubco reform is damaging communities and the social well-being of every part of Britain – nowhere, no community anywhere, is free of the blight of the pubco hegemony. Newspapers, television and government all listen to CAMRA, yet since 2014 CAMRA HQ has been silent on the fate of pubs in the hands of tied pubcos.

“CAMRA HQ’s refusal to be drawn into stating a position on pubco reform and most recently the appointment of a totally compromised Pubs Code Adjudicator is tantamount to support for a Tied Pubco Hegemony that has been asset stripping Britain of OUR pubs on an industrial scale. CAMRA HQ’s position is fundamentally deleterious to the health of the British pub sector. Thousands of communities have been damaged permanently by their local pub closing forever. Time, history, will prove that the true costs of pub closures to the UK’s fundamental social fabric are so costly as to be incalculable in conventional financial terms.

“Until November 2014 CAMRA was a key member of the Fair Deal For Your Local campaign coalition that was instrumental to bringing the Pubs Code into law. Then, while celebrating ‘our job is done’ with another two years’ government imposed ‘consultation’ on the Code ahead, CAMRA dropped pubco reform like a hot potato – we do not know why – it was just as if CAMRA were a carpenter who’d left a door hanging with only one hinge in place. 

“Since 2014 CAMRA HQ’s absence of a position on pubco reform has in effect endorsed pubcos’ continued asset stripping of British pubs everywhere and with the appointment of a director of the pubcos’ estate agent of choice- Paul Newby – as Pubs Code Adjudicator CAMRA HQ’s silence has pretty much rubber stamped the hiring of a very obviously conflicted Adjudicator to police abuse of the tied pub sector.

“CAMRA HQ’s negligence in the matter is quite frankly unbelievable. All over Britain at regional and local level, hundreds of well informed CAMRA members, particularly local Pub Protection Officers, while remaining loyal to CAMRA’s founding ethos, are dismayed, disappointed and distressed by what they regard unequivocally to be HQ’s negligence towards pubs’ protection. Internally, they are highly critical of CAMRA HQ’s refusal to get down and dirty where they need to be on attacking the pubcos’ shockingly delinquent behaviour toward OUR national pub stock, and the thousands of tenants whose lives they ruin while extracting all the profit from the supply chain.

Top 40 CAMRA campaigner and 3 times national CAMRA award winner Greg Mulholland MP said:

“Over the last year, CAMRA’s leadership have badly let down publicans and pubs by dropping pubco reform like a stone, turning their back on tied licensees and licensees’ groups and failing to scrutinise whether the new Pubs Code is working, which it isn’t as the pubcos are flouting and thwarting it. Above all, the fact that CAMRA HQ has been silent on the clearly conflicted and compromised Pubs Code Adjudicator and his refusal to uphold the Pubs Code is shameful. Pubco licensees and supporters of the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign feel betrayed by CAMRA’s current leadership.”

“CAMRA members and branches and CAMRA HQ, when led by Mike Benner, did an excellent job lobbying their MPs to support the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign. Now those members are also being badly let down by CAMRA HQ’s failure to see the job through on pubco reform and to sit on the fence over the disastrous and conflicted Paul Newby. Pubs, publicans and CAMRA members deserve better and it is time that CAMRA’s leadership and staff actually did something to help get the Pubs Code working as intended and this includes opposing Paul Newby who is refusing to do the job he was appointed to do and is undermining the Pubs Code we all, CAMRA included, fought so hard for.

“It is time that CAMRA’s leadership and HQ staff worked with licensees’ groups instead of attending pubco roadshows. Licensees and their representatives will tell them what is happening with Code cases and if CAMRA’s leadership don’t listen and engage with this, then their claims to really support reform and the all-important Market Rent Only option will ring very hollow.”

Chris Wright of the Pubs Advisory Service, the tenant support organisation currently dealing with many of the live Pubs Code cases said:

“Why are CAMRA HQ unwilling to offer those at the coal face any tangible support to get the code working as it should? They were quick enough to take the ‘win’ back in 2014 and so they should step up and take some responsibility to help sort the mess it’s in now – just where is the legacy from the campaign they championed?

“Given that towards the end of the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign CAMRA HQ withheld information on our supporters from their campaigning partners, it doesn’t surprise us that they are indifferent to the outcome of the Pubs Code for those tenants using it”.

[1] Hansard, 26/01/2017: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-01-26/debates/3BFDCAEB-1F96-44A0-BAA9-FC797930D9D0/StatutoryPubsCodeAndPubsCodeAdjudicator

Don’t ask me to choose my favourite pub…but this one is a perfect pub! The Golden Ball, York

It is an almost impossible task for me to choose my favourite pub. The joy of the Great British pub is that (the great ones, at least) are unique and all have a different character, many developed over decades or centuries.

It would be most unwise (and too difficult!) for me to choose a favourite pub in my constituency, I am so lucky to have so many fine pubs locally to visit, a surprising number happily in walking and cycling distance.

So I have picked one of the many pubs I love that epitomises all that is great about pubs. I love town pubs, country pubs, city pubs and suburban pubs, as long as they are real, proper, pubs. For me, my absolute favourite though is probably the back street boozer, that thrill when you turn a a corner or walk down a sidestreet and come upon an unexpected mid-terrace local or corner pub. No pub I have been to epitomises this more than the glorious Golden Ball in York. In a city teeming with wonderful pubs (surely the greatest pub city in the land?) the Golden Ball is a pub, in a quiet residential terraced neighbourhood, that no tourist or day tripper would ever pass. It is a pub that devious planning consultants and their PR agencies would say is clearly not ‘viable’ especially with so many pubs in York as so many in the historic thronging city centre.

Yet the Golden Ball, still pubco owned but happily now run by the local community, is thriving with a positive atmosphere with folk of all ages enjoying this gem. There is something so clearly tangible about the sense of pride that there is from people on both sides of the bar. A backstreet community run pub in a city of hundreds of pubs, the Golden Ball has broken new found and has shown that there are some pubs in cities and towns as well as rural communities villages that are best run by a community.

The pub is wonderfully unspoilt yet equally timeless. The separate rooms and areas, so stupidly ripped out by so many shortsighted breweries and each room and area has a different character. It is a place where you could have a great night with friends spending the whole evening there; a place where half an hour with a pint and the newspaper is a joy; and a place to include on first rate pub crawls involving many of the wonderful pubs that side of town. They sell local free range eggs and handmade bread, they have bar billiards, community events and of course, a folk might and an open mic night so people can sing about this glorious celebration of community. The ale, of course includes local beer and is well kept and served.

This is a pub you can’t walk past without popping in, but that once you know it is there, you go out of your way to visit. How many pubs that have been lost, were like the Golden Ball, could now be like the Golden Ball, but are mere footnotes in local history, not able to bring the community together the way the Golden Ball does and will for years to come? Many could be and if people visit the Golden Ball in York and take inspiration from it, perhaps they will be. One day I hope that Enterprise will sell the freehold to the community, so that then the community that run it so superbly well an actually own their treasured asset.

Those who love pubs who haven’t been to the Golden Ball should plan a pub trip to York and ensure that the Golden Ball (and as many other of the city’s fine inns as possible) is on their route!

A national scandal – we are losing too many pubs on the basis of a lie

Newspapers often carry stories of the latest figure on pub closures. Each and every case will have its own circumstances, its own history, its own sad tale of why it has closed.

Yet one thing that isn’t covered and seems little understood is that many of the pubs closing are not “unviable” as is often claimed – or accepted.  Ministers and Councils (and often the media) are turning a blind eye to the fact that many of the pubs closed are not only valued and wanted, but very clearly “viable” and could succeed under different ownership and a different business model.

What makes this a national scandal, is that many of these pubs are clearly viable, indeed in many cases actually profitable when closed. Pubs that are actively and positively contributing to the local economy, employing people and paying rates and taxes. All of that is lost as well as history, sometimes going back years even centuries, all to placate shareholders and company bosses who have never even visited the pub that has served the community for so long.

Worst of all, many of these pubs are being closed on the basis of a lie, a lie peddled by anyone it suits – aggressive developers who see the opportunity to use it to cram in flats or town houses where a pub has long stood, supermarkets who use absurd permitted development rights to impose stores on community without any consultation, and worst of all, peddled by pub owning companies when it suits them to cash in and sell off pubs with no consideration for the local community the pub serves. It is a lie accepted by too many Ministers and council planning departments and plans panels. It is a lie that is destroying history and heritage and undermining community spirit and cohesion.

Another part of the lie is that the only pubs closing are unremarkable pubs, with little historic value. Once again this is not the case and pubs that have served for years, sometimes hundreds of years, are being lost for ever. The Summercross in my own constituency, the only pub of that name in the country, was given planning permission to be a care home despite Leeds City Council having figures proving the pub was trading profitably. The 15th century Chequer Inn in Ash, Kent, was the last proper pub in the village. It was churned by Punch and sold for a song (£188K) to a developer who wanted to turn it into a private house and currently stands empty. We are losing our history, our heritage and part of who we are as a nation.

The flawed planning system is actually facilitating this greedy asset stripping and the Department for Communities and Local Government are covering their eyes and pretending it isn’t happening, it is and it is happening on their watch – and if they refuse to address this, they are complicit in the loss of each and every valued, profitable pub against the wishes of a let-down community.

Up and down the country, communities are up in arms at the fact that their local pub has been or is going to be turned into a supermarket and that they do not even have the right to object to the Council. Constituents who approach their councillors or MP for support in saving their beloved local are incredulous when told that there is nothing they can do about it, that the planning system allows Tesco, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s et al the right to close and convert their pub. Often there is the ridiculous situation where Tesco rip out a pub and replace it with a Tesco Express, without needing planning permission – yet then have to apply for planning permission for some signage! This is the sort of thing that brings the planning system into disrepute. Whilst there is carte blanche to turn pubs in a supermarket whether people want one or not, you can’t then turn a shop back into a pub, without needing to get planning permission! Even more bizarrely, the planning system – and therefore the Government – values casinos, launderettes and nightclubs more than pubs. Hardly the position of a “pro-pub Government”.

Yet even where planning permission is required, indebted pub companies collude with developers to claim that the pub “can’t trade profitably” or is “unviable” and weak planning authorities go along with it and rubber stamp decisions that are so obviously cynical attempts to cash it with a windfall for the pubco to placate shareholders and a boost for developer profits. This situation is now especially serious, with the value of pubs and their carparks and gardens being so much higher as potential development sites, that predatory purchasing (and the dishonest presentation of ‘viability’ that goes with it) that pubs are facing an existential threat in some areas, particularly in parts of London and the south east.

These absurd permitted development rights are being used as a way to offload pub sites to prop up debt ridden companies and are being abused by supermarket chains who indulge in ‘predatory purchasing’ precisely because of these loopholes and the fact that they can impose a store on a community without any objections from residents or shopkeepers.

Indeed the reason behind so much of the loss of Britain’s pub heritage is of the catastrophic leased tied pubco model which has led to their mass asset stripping. Whilst the original pubco bosses who speculated and borrowed against artificial values have long since walked away with their personal fortunes, the amount of debt left from this scam is leading to sale and closures of pubs up and down the country as pubcos do deals with supermarkets and developers. As well as pulling the wool over the eyes of councils when it comes to seeking permission (where they even need to) they also claim that they have no choice, as their first duty is to their shareholders. So we have the absurd but awful reality that the interests of those who invested in what was essentially a scam, based on inflated property prices and the protection racket of pubco beer pricing, are now being put ahead of the interests of local communities, of hardworking publicans of that local economy.

The ongoing asset stripping by these hugely indebted property companies and the current planning system regarding pubs has itself led to the creation of a scam and pubco debt has given rise to a new wave of vultures circling the county looking to swoop anywhere they can get their hands on a community pub. This list is topped by New River Retail, who now own hundreds of pubs (their name suggests that their purchase of pubs isn’t entirely benign!) and others like Hawthorn, LT Management, Mendoza, Golfrate, all companies set up to act as vehicles for asset stripping neglected pubco pubs whilst planning authorities, councillors and communities can do little to resist.

So the fact is that pubs – including profitable and popular pubs – are being closed and lost forever as a direct result of current Department for Communities and Local Government policy. The loss of a pub is the end of a business that contributes proportionately more to the local economy than supermarkets do, that employs people, notably young people, and that serves the local community in a way no other business does or can.  Once a pub is a block of flats, the developer and pubco may have made a nice sum, but the business that could trade and contribute for years to come has gone, with no income to the local economy, no jobs for people

So why does the Government, a Government that claims to support both business and localism, continue to refuse to deal with the reality of what is happening and reform the planning system to protect pubs, businesses, jobs and community spirit? At the heart of this blind eye is blind ideology, the belief amongst the more out of touch Tory Ministers that what is needed in more and more “deregulation” in the planning system. Yet this mantra not only takes away the right of local residents to have a say over key changes in their area, it also is giving a green light to all those who are targeting pubs as ways for them to make some money, regardless of the loss of a viable business and jobs and regardless of the loss to the community. As long as this remains the case with pubs, the supposed commitment to ‘localism’ is tokenistic, as many people including Conservative councillors have found to their cost as their valued pubs are lost to greedy predators.

Of course, DCLG will claim they are pro pub due to the ‘Asset of Community Value’ scheme and say that there are more pubs listed as ACVs than anything else. Yet whilst this limited measure can be some help in at least delaying developers or supermarkets closing a pub, it is doing virtually nothing to stem this dangerous attack on our pub heritage.

Ministers claim that if people value their pub, they should list it and yet, with thousands of pubs in this country both ‘valued’ and clearly viable, to stop the wholesale destruction of pubs currently going on, it would need communities to list most if not all of their local pubs, which as well as being unrealistic would also cost local authorities millions of pounds at a time of huge financial constraints. In truth, this approach is merely the Government passing the buck for something and using ACVs as a fig leaf to cover up their disgraceful refusal to give pubs basic protection in the planning system.  ACVs status is actually weak and there are pubs that have (or had) this status that were still shut, converted and demolished and others that sit rotting with this status on, with the owners cynically say that a derelict pub is no asset to any community.

Where the Government and the ACV scheme is also wrongly directed is that the saviour of manty pubs up and down the country is not communities, and aside from the minority of cases where a community may want to or be able to take on a pub, the saviour is actually local entrepreneurs, small expanding pub companies and thriving microbreweries, who are taking on a few pubs to showcase their exciting beer.

So let’s be clear ACV’s will not and cannot save pubs against the threat they are currently facing and pretending otherwise is to allow the asset stripping and predatory purchasing of our pub heritage to continue. To really save profitable pubs,  we need is the Government to make pubs ‘sui generis’ in the planning system, so without any permitted development rights, which at least means that planning permission will be required to turn pubs into flats or supermarkets.

However if Ministers really care about the pub, they need to introduce reform that will stop the indebted and amoral pubcos and their shareholders, predatory supermarkets and developers in their tracks. The solution is actually a surprisingly simple one – which is that no pub should be allowed to be given change of use of demolished unless it has been publicly marketed for 6 months at the market value as a pub (not as a development opportunity). If no local entrepreneur, microbrewery, pub company or community group wants to buy and take on the pub, then it can and should be granted permission to close and be something else. For only when this has been tested, can we say it is an unwanted, unviable pub.

This could be done by replacing ACVs for pubs with a more meaningful Pub of Community Value (PCV) status which does precisely that – or to pursue a definition of a pub, as opposed to bars and other licensed premises and have these associated terms on change of use. Either way, it would finally send a message out that it is wrong – economically and morally – to be closing profitable, popular pubs, ending a business and putting people out of work, simply to make a quick buck.  Our communities deserve better.

So Ministers must stop hiding behind the very limited Asset of Community Value scheme, must stop accepting or worse still peddling the lie that it is only ‘unviable’ pubs that are being closed and they must stop passing the buck. They – and only they – can take simple, essential measures to give pubs protection against the deliberate targeting and closure of viable, profitable, valued pubs. If they don’t, then their claims to be pro-pub will be just more hot air.

It was, perhaps ironically, a Frenchman who wrote the great lines about the threats faced our pubs just over 100 years ago. In This and That (1912) Hilaire Belloc wrote those famous words:

“From the towns all Inns have been driven: from the villages most…. Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”.

For England, we could of course add the other ‘home nations’ and with so many village pubs having gone, it is now urban and suburban pubs that are closing in greatest number (often because they offer the easiest development opportunity or the chance to impose a supermarket on a community).

Hilaire Belloc was also a Liberal MP, perhaps he too raised this in Parliament, but he could scarcely have imagined and would have been appalled at the way vested corporate interests are colluding and conspiring to deliberately close profitable pubs and rob communities of them. So it is also somewhat ironic that a Government that likes to claim to be patriotic is standing by as Britain’s pub heritage is lost as unprincipled developers, pubcos and supermarkets cash in.

Unless they act, it is not just pubs that Ministers are letting down, it is our nation. So they must now change their hearts and quickly before we lose any more of it.

Welcome!

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I’ve always loved pubs. I don’t know why. I’ve just always loved pubs, every since I was a child. Real pubs, proper pubs in their many types in all different kids of communities and locations in this great country of ours.  

Pubs are at the heart of our communities. Pubs are part of our history and our heritage as a nation. Yet as a nation we are standing by and watching so many close, that need not close and accepting excuses from companies who have an interest in closing them – and preventing someone else running them – and from politicians who use (or accept) excuses as to why not to allow other people to take and run them.

Noone was really standing up for the Great British Pub in the House of Commons, so I decided I would and I formed the Parliamentary Save the Pub Group in 2009. I and we’ve been involved in the successful campaigns for lower beer duty, for better recognition for pubs in the planning system and masterminded the campaign for the market rent only option for tied pubco landlords. Yet there is much more to do – and much of it could be done simply – with the political will.  I will continue to lead the fight to make these things happen and to stop so many pubs closing that need not close; and yes, I will carry on visiting and commenting on pubs, the good, the bad and the mediocre up and down this still pub filled land.

Greg Mulholland MP
Chair, Parliamentary Save the Pub Group

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