I have an amazing group of friends, family, colleagues and supporters that appreciate taverns and their history as much as I do. On February 16, 2014, The New York Times published the article Saving an Endangered British Species: The Pub. Almost immediately, my inbox overflowed with e-mails expressing a wide range of concern and emotions. Most of you were sad, some of you were angry, and many of you were wanting to know more.
I love Britain’s pubs for every reason you do. Whether it be amongst the chaos of London’s bustling Fleet Street or in the middle of the tranquil English countryside, they are all special for similar – and different – reasons. In the past couple of years I have made it almost a mission to become more familiar and friendly with the British pub, but I still have many to explore and much to learn. After reading the article I, too, wanted to know more and I wanted to talk to someone knowledgeable about the topic. So I turned to one of my fellow members of the Pub History Society of the United Kingdom. Steve Williams is a founding member of the Society and I knew that of anyone I know, his reply and opinion on the future of the British pub would be well informed. Is this historic and cultural institution truly in danger? Will they all be gone someday? Say it ain’t so. Steve sheds some light on the situation and his words, coupled with the NY Times article, made something very clear: I don’t know what the future holds, but what I do know that my love for the British pub will never cease to exist and I’ll be getting my rear to England as often as possible just to sit in a tavern and soak in every little bit of her wonderful history. Who wants to join me?
Saving an Endangered British Species: A Follow Up
By Steve Williams, Founding Member of the Pub History Society
‘when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England’
- Hillaire Belloc
Mr. Belloc sums it up really quite well I think and yes, pubs have been an endangered species for some time but the speed at which the Great British Pub is turned into restaurants, housing and coffee shops can sometimes make your head spin!
One of the problems that the article in the NY Times highlights very well is the hold of the pubco over large swathes of pubs. There are many who see the pubco business model as an unfair strangle hold over the pub licensee or ‘landlord’, this is the man who runs the business, serves the beer and smiles at the customers all day long!
For those not familiar with the system allow me to elucidate. In the UK around half of the pubs are owned by pubco’s accounting for around 30,000 pubs. The remaining half are owned either independently or by breweries. The pubco’s charge rent for the building, and quite right too but they also usually provide all of the beer through cosy deals with breweries and importers. Generally that shouldn’t be too much of a problem and it all sounds very convenient but there’s a price differential between the price of the beer sold to the pubco pub and that on the open market known invariable as the ‘Free Trade’ or ‘Free of Tie’. This can be quite substantial and makes the pub less profitable through higher costs. There could be the ridiculous situation where a delivery to two pubs next to each other have the same beer delivered by the same truck but because one pub is ‘free of tie’ and the other is a pubco pub the beers are priced differently. Some pubcos are better than others and there are many who run their affairs in a gentlemanly manner. There are others who see themselves purely as property developers and will off load pubs to anyone with a big enough cheque book regardless of the impact on the local community.
The British pub also lacks protection within the planning system that exists in the UK. A pub can be turned into a burger restaurant, a Starbucks coffee shop or a shoe shop with little or no fuss. A surprising anomaly within the system is that a pub can be turned into any business within the financial services sector such as a bank or real estate office without requiring permission. This lack of due process means that there is no way objections can be raised by the concerned beer drinking public. Try and change a bank into a pub and you’ll need planning permission, a large legal team and possibly divine intervention!
Our beloved Government has seen fit to provide us with a nice new shiny piece of legislation that allows we beer drinkers to band together and ask for our local pub to be nominated as an ‘asset of community value’ but this only comes into play when the building is put up for sale. If the owner decides to convert it to a shop selling woolly mittens or bananas there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. There has also been a few cases of the local authority refusing to accept a pub as an asset as there’s another pub nearby. Thanks Mr Prime Minister but it’s too little too late. Of course our leaders could simply have just created a specific planning category for pubs. This would mean that anytime anyone wanted to change the Dog & Duck into a Starbucks it would have to go before local people who could object. Seems simple really but hey, I’m no lawyer just a pub goer!
Over the coming years the British pub will continue to face difficult times and there will no doubt be considerably less of them as time goes by. But this unique institution is a resilient one and will continue to adapt and reflect the changing nature of what’s put before it. In the 1850′s the fortunes of the large coaching inns declined with the coming of the railways with many of them reverting to small village pubs, some became railway hotels and expanded into huge concerns. Many of these small village beer houses became popular again with the advent of cycling clubs and the increased use of the car between the two world wars. Fortunes come and go it would seem.
Whatever your view on the British pub, one thing is for certain. The British like their pubs and like a drink despite being constantly told that ‘Nanny knows best’ and we should all go to the gym more often and eat less chips. I, like most others will ignore all this good advice, drink beer and continue to get awkward and vocal about the loss of my local pubs. Sometimes we may even win and save a pub or two after all we still need places where we can drink beer and moan about the loss of our pubs!
Cheers for now! – Steve