OLDHAM Council has agreed to carry out a review of pubs across the Borough to address growing concerns from people about the rapid pace of local closures.
Pubs are important to the fabric of our town, and also our nation.
Many overseas visitors look forward to sampling a ‘good British pub’, such is their symbolic place in our cultural history – and as part of our national identity.
But rose-tinted views of the perfect British pub fall some way off the mark when you compare them with the reality of our changing towns in 2013.
There are many varied and complex reasons why pubs are struggling but the sheer number of closures should raise the alarm with anyone who recognises that pubs are not simply a place to buy a pint, but also a vital community asset.
In many villages the shops have closed and post offices are gone, but the humble pub remains – for now.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is estimating that around 1,000 more pubs will close in the next 12 months.
In Oldham itself we have seen 50 licences for bars and clubs surrendered from January 2008 to date – and there will be some premises that still have licences in force that have also closed but are not yet counted.
So, if pubs are such a vital part of our fabric, why are they under so much threat?
Nationally consumer trends are leaning towards more and more people drinking socially at home.
It’s cheaper and couples can also have a drink together without worrying about childcare.
Increasingly the pubs which do well are those that are serving good quality food but – for an average couple with two children – that is a rare treat, given the cost.
Here in Oldham and many other places the cultural mix has also changed.
In many places the community doesn’t drink alcohol and therefore simply wouldn’t use a pub as a matter of course.
And I suppose if we class pubs as community assets the community also has to want them and use them – and if they don’t then that’s fine too.
The Government has just announced proposals for a new code of conduct on the issue of abuse of the ‘beer tie’: whereby landlords are forced into only buying supplies from the pub companies that own the venues, and often at high prices.
It will apply to those companies owning more than 500 pubs – targeting the area where it says 90 per cent of complaints are received.
But taxation is also a large part of the issue here – and successive governments have failed to address the impact of this on what are very low margin sales.
The Government did freeze the beer duty increase in this year’s Budget, saving 1p off the price of a pint, but that measure from Mr Osbourne, I’m afraid, completely missed the scale of the challenge.
Based on my own modest intake of a couple of pints a week it would take me almost five years before I earned back my first free pint – Cheers, George!
Breweries themselves have to take a long hard look in the mirror too.
Not all of them are the same, but it’s clear that some in the industry are pricing themselves out of the market. High rents and expensive ‘ties’ on stock mean it is very difficult for a landlord to make any kind of a reasonable wage to live on.
The pressure to ‘realise a return’ on assets sees many landlords paying rents as high as £77,000 a year – the rate for one Oldham pub currently being advertised (The Grapes, Lees).
That is also on top of your Business Rates, staffing and running costs – plus the small matter of stock.
The best way to protect your local pub as a resident for now is, quite simply, to use it.
But I am looking forward to seeing what the cross-party Overview and Scrutiny Committee examining this issue in Oldham comes up with.
Let’s hope they can offer some real practical solutions that can help our landlords and communities alike.
Thanks for listening,