Community pubs – past, present … and future?

Chris Game

‘Eat Out to Help Out’ – not ‘Dine Out’ or even ‘Sup Out’, which might at least have left room for doubt. Having already omitted pubs from his £4 billion+ VAT cut, Chancellor Rishi Sunak excluded them again by explicitly restricting his meal discount stunt to non-alcoholic drinks only. And this from the party once so closely identified with the brewing industry that the Conservative benches in the House of Lords were known collectively as the ‘Beerage’.

Times do indeed change.  But this, the statistics and the sufferers suggest, could be serious.  UK pub numbers have fallen by well over a fifth since 2000 – from 60,800 to under 48,000 (https://beerandpub.com/statistics/pub-numbers/) – and, of those remaining, nearly 70% are reckoned to be ‘wet-led’, relying mainly on alcohol sales.

“A slap in the face”, one Whitby landlord described ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jul/11/pub-landlords-livid-lack-of-support-rishi-sunak).  “We don’t do food, we’re an award-winning cask ale pub. It just helps all the big chains. It’s the good old community pubs where you go in for a drink and a natter that will suffer.”

That’s what this blog is about: community pubs – a rather late and very patchy centenary celebration of their past and present, in the hope that they may still have what, until Covid and Sunak, was starting to look quite a promising future.

A bit like Hull having its own municipal telephone system and cream-painted phone boxes, and Birmingham for some 60 years its own municipal bank, Carlisle is nowadays a kind of nerdy footnote in social history and public administration.

Only a bit, though, because Carlisle’s pubs, though dating back to precisely the same year, 1916, as the Birmingham Corporation Savings Bank, were not municipal enterprises but experiments in nationalisation.

As the wartime coalition government massively increased armaments production, thousands of munitions workers, builders, and military personnel were drafted into the National Munitions Factory just north of Carlisle – and it proved thirsty work.

Local pubs were swamped and licensing laws duly tightened – albeit from the previous 5.00 a.m. to 12.30 at night – but this was not enough for Lloyd George, teetotal Munitions Minister, who would cheerfully have introduced prohibition. Instead, however, the Government launched a large-scale social engineering experiment.

In the English-Scottish border area five breweries were nationalised, and in Carlisle itself the 65 pubs not closed down were also taken over by a new Central Control Board – managed theoretically by civil servants, in practice mainly by the former licensees.

The State Management Scheme was a kind of enlightened authoritarianism, aimed at transforming these city pubs’ macho drinking culture – in a way that, decades later, the rest of the country would gradually follow. It became known as the ‘Carlisle Experiment’ (https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/discover-and-understand/military/the-first-world-war/first-world-war-home-front/what-we-already-know/land/state-control-of-pubs/).

Smarter décor, comfortable seating, food and entertainment – darts, dominoes, snooker, bowls – reduced ABV (alcohol by volume) measures, in the cause of countering so-called ‘perpendicular drinking’ and, absolutely key, attracting the custom of ‘respectable’ women.

Food sales in some of these ‘new model’ community pubs-cum-food-houses reached levels that would impress even today’s gastro pubs.  What’s more, the State Management Scheme continued post-war to record a profit every single year – helping no doubt to seal its eventual demise at the hands of the 1970s’ Conservative Government.

You might suppose that, sometime over a 13-year period of government from 1997 to 2010, a party officially titled the Labour and Co-operative Party would see something in this remarkable long-term experiment worth trying to replicate.

But evidently not. However, the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government did. Its 2011 Localism Act failed to deliver its promised ground-breaking devolution of powers from central to local government, but it did introduce some significant ‘Community rights’ – including the right to bid for ‘Assets of Community Value’ (ACVs) (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/14880/Community_Right_to_Bid_-_Non-statutory_advice_note_for_local_authorities.pdf).

Councils were required to maintain lists of such assets – libraries, swimming pools, village shops, post offices, markets, and obviously pubs. Then, if an ACV came on the open market, community groups could ‘stop the clock’ for six months, giving them not a ‘right to buy’, but at least the chance to generate useful local publicity while gathering resources to bid to buy or take it over.

Yes, it was and is limited, potentially both circumventable and costly. But even its critics would surely acknowledge its genuine record of achievement.

Pubs are just one example, given an early boost – long before the Localism Act – by that most earnest consciousness-raiser, the Prince of Wales.  Among others, he is credited back in 2001 with having inspired the formation of ‘Pub is the Hub’, the fairly self-explanatory not-for-profit organisation dedicated to improving community services generally and to collective ownership pub partnerships in particular (https://www.pubisthehub.org.uk/).

The Prince’s interests, however, especially since the 2010 establishment of his Countryside Fund, are much wider-ranging, so the arrival of the new Right to Bid gave the community pub cause and its advocates a very timely boost.

Advocates like the Plunkett Foundation, backer particularly of rural communal enterprises since the days of the ‘Carlisle Experiment’. And CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), thanks to whom we have (seriously!) a designated Community Pubs Minister, albeit one of the gimmicky sub-titles assumed where relevant by usually the Local Government Minister.

Back in 2013 it was Brandon Lewis, who was able to announce at least a modest £150,000 for ‘Pub is the Hub’ to support community pubs, and a bit later that the 100th community pub had been listed as an ACV (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/brandon-lewis-announces-100-community-pubs-are-saved).

Today, as already noted, the whole pub world is in turmoil, but last year that ACV-listed figure had topped 1,250, with the number of actually community-owned pubs over 130 – most as co-operatives, but, as the saying goes, other models are available.

Then there were last Christmas’s glad tidings – a new £1.15 million Government fund enabling some 100 communities to own their own pub or benefit from new pub-based community services. And announced not by the pubs bloke but the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary himself, Robert Jenrick – though whether because of the initiative’s importance or ministerial self-importance was unclear (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/funding-boost-for-the-great-british-pub).

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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