Local Hero

Local Hero is my favourite film theme of all time (and it’s a very enjoyable film too). For those who haven’t seen it, it’s about a Texan oil baron planning to buy a Scottish village and replace it with an oil refinery.

Well it wasn’t Pennan I was travelling too, the village that was Ferness in the film, but Pitmedden, also in Aberdeenshire and very much in Scotland’s oil country. A place that before my invitation and visit, I had never heard of. I could hear the superb Mark Knopfler theme as I travelled out of Aberdeen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pR1cVgk7Is . The reason for my visit was to perform the official (re)opening and pull the first pint at the Craft Bar which that night was opening in the village.

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Paul Johnston is a local Councillor for the area and someone I had got to know as he had kindly helped me in the 2015 General Election. Through that and his couple of weeks staying in Otley, I learnt that like me, Paul was a pub and beer enthusiast and CAMRA member (as our mutual friend Ray also is). I knew that Paul supported local pubs in his ward, but I didn’t know the extent of his passion for pubs or his commitment to them and the role they play in communities.

Paul had an ambition of taking on a pub or buying one and making it a success. What he actually did though, was remarkable. The village of Pitmedden is small, home only to a little over a thousand people. It is in the middle of Paul’s, Council Ward, the unusually named Mid-Formatine. Last year the Pitmedden Bar, that had been a pub for at least two centuries as far as there are records and probably longer, closed. It was in a poor state. A really poor state from those who told me about it. By the time it closed unloved, underused and with serious problems.

The Pitmedden Bar seemed, like so many traditional pubs and bars in Scotland and the rest of the UK, to be consigned to history, to be lost to the village and the community forever. One man though had other ideas. One man who believed that Pitmedden and Mid-Formatine and Aberdeenshire deserved to have this pub saved. That man was Cllr Paul Johnston. He had the three things you need to reopen and save a (genuinely) failing ailing pub: courage, vision and support. The courage became all the more apparent the more I heard about the state of the place, with the wind literally whistling through holes in the fabric of the building. The support came from family, with Paul’s wife and son not only involved but with Paul’s son Alex enthusiastically taking on the challenge of managing the place. The support also has come from the community and long may that continue.

 

As for the vision, I suspect those who knew the old Pitmedden Bar would struggle to recognise it, but to anyone else visiting this welcoming village bar, it combines bright, attractive decor with the traditional welcome and feel of a real community Scottish pub. The Craft has made beautiful use of the small but unusual and characterful space. Clean, whitewashed walls and wooden furniture including genuine church pews make a fine combination of old and new.

The first thing visible through the door are the two handpumps signalling a very welcome commitment to cask ale, something previously not available in Pitmedden. Alongside it some excellent craft keg and lager, a great bottled beer range, artisan gins, of course decent malts and a surprisingly fine selection of wine, surprising until Paul reveals a fine wine buying habit that goes back many years! Best of all (for a real pub person like me) it’s a pub/bar, not a pub restaurant, with snacks on offer to munch, including some interesting cheeses, to go with the fine ale or wine. It’s a place to drop in for a drink on the way home, a place to sit alone with a newspaper in the corner (one of my favourite things to do) or for a group of friends to sit and while away an evening. It’s a proper, community, Scottish pub.

So I’d never heard of Pitmedden before, but now thanks to Paul and the Craft Bar, I will always know it and will certainly visit again when I can. The next morning as I waited for an early flight at Aberdeen airport, alongside people working in the oil business, I reflected on the evening, the warmth of the welcome and the smiles on the people from the local community who joined us for the official opening, all reflected in the comments on the Facebook page since then.

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As I boarded the plane, I could hear that wonderful Mark Knopfler theme again in my head. No doubt who is the local hero of this tale. A man who came not to destroy a community like the oil baron in the film, but a public spirted community servant who came to open a new hub for one – and has done so in some style. So Cllr Paul Johnston, that makes you a local hero and of course a pub hero. I salute you. Sláinte and may the Craft Bar keep serving the community of Pitmedden for years to come!

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The Craft Bar is online https://thecraftpitmedden.wordpress.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/TheCraftPitmedden/ and @The_Craft_Bar

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A pub and beer marriage made in Kirkstall – and in heaven: How fantastic small brewing and pub owning companies can make our greatest pubs great again!

What a joy.

It’s so nice to be able to write about something so positive. So much pub campaigning has and is, sadly but inevitably, about fighting against negative things. The Great British Pubco Scam, unscrupulous developers and supermarkets, absurd business rates, organisations and politicians who refuse to face (or deliberately ignore) the reality of pub closures or do nothing about them (whilst pretending to support pubs). So to get to write about something so hugely positive and indeed very special is indeed a joy. Okay so some of this tale involves (of course) the all too typically corrosive effects of the appalling tied leased pubco model and the effects of that scam on some of Britain’s finest pubs, but this story has a happy ending and it is the happy ending this pub story is all about.

I was lucky enough to have been asked to have a preview of the newly reopened Cardigan Arms, in Kirkstall, west Leeds. This historic district is of course best known for the 12th Cistercian Abbey, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirkstall_Abbey) whose striking ruins are extraordinarily in a suburb of one of the biggest cities of the UK, but Kirkstall is also an area that has long been associated with brewing and beer and therefore pubs to drink it in.

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The jewel in the crown for so many years, both for this part of Leeds but also one of the jewels of the former vast Tetley’s estate, the Cardigan Arms was a destination pub as well as a local pub for decades. The pub is Victorian, built I believe in 1895 the year the rugby league was born just to the west in another licensed premises, the George in Huddersfield (now alas closed and with an uncertain future, though it is a large hotel, not a pub).

For those who haven’t been (and if you haven’t, and love pubs, you must) the Cardy as it is known by many boasts an amazingly preserved classic multi roomed Victorian interior and is Grade II listed. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1375062. It was a Joshua Tetley Heritage Inn when, despite any unhealthy and almost unchallenged market dominance in Leeds (of beer and pubs), Tetley’s really cared about their great Victorian pubs and preserved such gems from the kind of short-sighted ‘refurbishments’ that did for so many other pubs up and down the country. When you walk into the Cardigan it’s a reminder of why pubs were so fabulous and a reminder of the destruction reaped by so many wrong-headed breweries who ripped out the insides, the character, the heart and soul of so many fine pubs that were left as characterless open plan shells in decades gone by. Many never truly recovered and many of course have gone, partly as a result.
The Cardigan Arms is named after Lieutenant General James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, an officer in the British Army who commanded the Light Brigade during the Crimean War and led the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava. Large areas of LS6, especially in Hyde Park and Headingley, as well as Kirkstall and Burley, reference this famous man and family. I myself lived for a few years in Brudenell Street, one of the many streets bearing that name. Appropriately enough the incongruous modern American style leisure park opposite the Cardy is named Cardigan Fields, though there are no fields amidst it’s modern soulless functional buildings housing a cinema, other leisure facilities, diners and of course a ‘drive-thru’ McDonalds. Thank goodness the Cardy is opposite and offers not just a real pub but a superb one rather than the manufactured offerings of the premises there.

Apparently the current building dates from when the pub was rebuilt after the previous pub became so run-down that the local magistrates contemplated refusing its licence…this could have been the same fate as the current Victorian building the way things were going.

The Cardy is the last remaining of the great Victorian triumvirate of this part of Leeds: the Cardigan Arms, the Rising Sun just down Kirkstall road and The Queen just up the hill and along, on Burley Road. The Queens has suffered the fate of so many pubs, it is now a Tesco Express, the insides ripped out as part of the cultural destruction that has been reaped up and down the land; the Rising Sun, alas, it seems clear – to quote my song, Last Of England “will never rise again” after a fire destroyed much of its similarly fine Victorian interior. (http://www.summercross.uk/about.html). It remains boarded up and alas with the money it presumably would now take to restore, its time as a pub seems gone. So had we lost the Cardy, we would have lost the Last of England in this part of Leeds.

It easily could so have happened too. In the 1980s and ‘90s pub was busy, well run and very popular but as a result of the Beer Orders, Tetley’s (who of course were also bought by Carlsberg) offloaded it. Due to the deliberate and cynical loophole in the Beer Orders (lobbied hard for by the beerage of the time) the giant pubcos were created and the Cardigan Arms was a Punch Taverns pub. In recent years, the Cardy had become a depressing, grubby and unwelcoming place. Its sad and unkempt feel an all too common sign of the lack of pubco investment of the absurd and abusive fully repairing and insuring pubco long leased model; and no, the last thing it wanted was an identikit pubco refurb install various non matching chairs in the colours of whatever the ‘in’ colour of the time and phoney basement style lighting (aren’t you sick of that too?). That would have destroyed the pub over time; luckily with the pub being listed it probably wasn’t an option. What the Cardigan needed was basic investment and love and attention and a good clean to make it glorious again.

To describe just what the Cardy had sadly become, up until quite recently, I can’t put it better (indeed as well) as top Leeds beer writer Simon Jenkins did in the Yorkshire Evening Post in March.

“From the days when this was a proud jewel in the Tetley’s crown, a prized blue plaque marking its heritage status, the Cardigan slipped by successive increments to become a rough-house of raucous drinkers, cheap lager and big screen football. It was almost tragic to see this stately, late Victorian drinking palace so sorely abused”. (http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/pub-review-cardigan-arms-kirkstall-leeds-1-8535865).

The only word I would question was the use of almost! (In pub terms, of course!) but a real pub tragedy could have happened had the pub continued on the same path. After the disastrous period of the ownership of Punch Taverns, the pub had become a Greene King pub (I suspect as part of an acquisition deal?) but whilst things didn’t seem as grim as they were under Punch, the new owners didn’t seem to know what to do with it, so they decided to sell it. That could have been bad news, but it was clear that there were people who could and would take the pub on and as a going concern. There were rightly fears about conversions, part conversions and the usual issues when large companies get involved with trading community assets (thankfully the listing would have stopped the likes of New River Retail turning it into another supermarket like the Queens), but then in stepped Steve Kelly and Steve Holt from Kirkstall Brewery who bought the pub and then got to work restoring it both physically and reputationally.

The work understandably took a few months (this foiled my plan to sneak off for a pint at the Cardy during my daughter’s 9th birthday party at Lazerzone!), but having seen what John and Steve did to the Bridge on Kirkstall Bridge, I was confident it would be worth the wait. Yet even then, when I walked back into the Cardigan at the preview night, my pub-lovers-heart leapt with joy. It was beautiful. So beautiful. Perfect in fact.

Carefully polished wood and brass, a wonderful chandelier in the ‘best room’, fine period furniture, candle on tables and mirrors, lots of big, fabulous pub and brewing mirrors (from Steve’s collection, I was told).

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Of course all the original features were there, that make the Cardy famous, the semi circular bar, the separate rooms, the frosted glass including the fabulous ‘Ladies Only’ bar sign.

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Steve’s face fell a little when I said it felt almost as if they hadn’t changed it at all, but in fact this was the greatest compliment. I didn’t meant change it from the scuzzy unkempt pub it had become; I mean from the feel I imagine it had the day it opened, when it was indeed modern, new and fresh but classic and the pride of Kirkstall. This was restoration at its best, so you didn’t quite know what had been done, but it just felt as it should. Which is surely the best thing you can ever say about a pub?

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So what a joy, what a pub, what a lovely story. Now this tale gets even better when you realise that not only are we talking about the rescue and renovation of one of Leeds finest pubs (and one of the UK’s finest Victorian pub interiors) but that also John and Steve revived brewing in Kirkstall, a famous name and a proud brewing tradition. The old Kirkstall Brewery, long gone, is now student halls of residence closed by Whitbread, but the current Kirkstall brewing is brewing some of the best beer around. http://www.kirkstallbrewerycompany.com/about-us/

Cardy welcome sign

Indeed, if you ask me, the beer coming from the brewery is better than the beers that were served from the Leeds Brewery by Tetley’s, which may be heresy to some (older drinkers) in Leeds! Kirkstall Brewery brew fabulous beer, for those who haven’t tried it. Stunning cask ales to suit all moods and many styles, top class craft keg (including refreshingly a new one, Virtuous at 4.5% , showing that craft keg doesn’t need to be 5% + to have bags of wonderful flavour).

So what a story, what an ending – and what a new beginning. Years after first large brewers then large pubcos , this story surely shows pub ownership getting back to what it was years and years ago and should be, great local breweries being passionate about local pubs. Just along the road, the Rising Sun and the Queen represent all that has gone wrong with the disastrous destruction of British pubs by corporate freed of pubcos and supermarkets, yet now thanks to genuine entrepreneurialship of local businessmen and beer enthusiasts John and Steve, the mighty Cardigan is saved and stunning again.

There was also a very well run community ownership bid to buy and take on the Cardy. It was an excellent and extremely well organised bid, raising a hugely impressive £130,000 in a short space of time. The people involved (so of whom I know personally and think very highly of) were hugely professional and passionate and had there been no interest from Kirkstall (or another good local operator) then I think that they would have bought the pub and would have wanted them to do so.
My view is that community ownership is the right (and often the only model) for at risk pubs where there is no commercial operator, including local entrepreneurs or local breweries, willing and able to take on a pub. In the end, though, in a situation where there is a successful and superb local brewer who have already transformed one local pub into one of the best in Yorkshire (in other words, the country!) then Kirkstall taking on the Cardigan Arms surely must be the very best outcome.

So I truly hope that the excellent people – pub champions – who were involved in the community pub bid carry on and find another Leeds pub that needs them and their pub passion. How I would love that pub to be the Rising Sun along the road, which might be this other stunning Victorian pub’s only chance of restoration. It may be too far gone for this to happen without money but who knows, we can but dream (pub loving millionaire philanthropists please get in touch!). If it could happen then that quarter of a mile of Kirkstall Road, Leeds would be probably the most extraordinary one with two well run national heritage pubs serving greet beer! But wherever there is a pub that needs saving and community ownership is the right solution, I will certainly, as I did before, promote this group and their aims.

So the final important point to make is that the wonderfully happy ending to this story (and the start of new one) shows the hugely positive role that GOOD companies can play not only in making pubs successful, but also doing something that contributes to the very fabric of our society, strengthens our communities and reaffirms who we are as a nation. We need more great pub and brewing companies like Kirkstall showing that proper pubs can be a great success with great owners and great beer. It’s also time that the law was changed so that greedy anti-pub owners must sell community pubs to such companies rather than for development and to supermarket chains when the pub is wanted by the community and viable and when the company has the finance to buy the pub.

So the historic, yet fresh, stunning listed Cardigan Arms and the modern Kirkstall Brewery truly is a marriage made in heaven and a marriage made in Kirkstall. Even the spirits of the holy men of Kirkstall Abbey will surely agree and sing a song of praise to this union in the heavens This is no charge of a light brigade, this is a crack pub special forces unit reclaiming a great Leeds pub and making it great again.! And as a lovely final footnote to this blissful beer and pub marriage made in Kirkstall, those Kirkstall brewmeisters are bringing out a beer called Brudenell!

John serving beer

John and Steve (and team). You are true pub heroes; having now delivered two stunning pubs in Kirkstall, you are also Kirkstall community heroes – and Leeds heroes. Keep it up and Freedom of the City should be a given! Thank you!

With John Rowe Steve & John K

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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