Save our pubs

It was once said that few things are more pleasant than a village graced with a good church, a good priest and a good pub.

Whilst the first two, along with our post offices, have been disappearing from towns and villages all over the UK for a number of years, it looks like they are now going to be followed by the centre of community life across many parts of Britain: the local pub.

By the time you read this column next Saturday, it is estimated that another thirty six pubs will have called time on their businesses and shut their doors for good. Whilst the Xmas period may be a stay of execution for some, it is expected that in during quiet period after the New Year many more will close. Camra - the Campaign for Real Ale - has predicted that 7,500 pubs will vanish by 2012 and many villages are, for the first time in centuries, without the local pub at the heart of their communities.

Of course, it is easy forget when you are leaning on the bar with your pint of Brains in your hand that your local pub is a business like any other but it is a business that is regularly clobbered by the Treasury at every opportunity.

Last Monday’s budget was no exception and publicans have, quite rightly, reacted angrily to the prospect of another increase in duty on beer in the Pre-Budget report. Whilst the Chancellor announced a cut in VAT to 15 per cent, this was offset by an increase in duty on beer to keep it the same price and follows the 9 per cent increase in beer duty from the last budget. Therefore, whilst beer sales are at their lowest since the 1930s, the last thing the industry wants is another tax increase.

For many, the question is whether the British Pub is worth saving?

The tourism industry would say yes and that it is an important part of our heritage. To many visitors, it is as much of an attraction as Big Ben, Stonehenge and the Beatles. As you go from village to village, town to town throughout the UK each pub has its own distinctive character and history, serving local beers and, increasingly, excellent and reasonably priced food.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that the Government does little to differentiate between pubs and the supermarkets. Whilst pubs up and down the country are struggling with an increase in tax on alcohol, supermarkets continue to use beer, wines and spirits as loss leaders to get the consumer through their doors.

When you have 45 cans of lager selling in supermarkets for under £20, how can pubs possibly compete with such prices, especially at a time when the consumer is watching every penny? Indeed, critics of the supermarkets have suggested that selling a controlled substance (which you have to be 18 to buy) at less than its cost price is not only irresponsible but potentially unethical.

Rather than ignoring this issue, it is time for the Government to step in and support the pub industry, and could start by ensuring that there is a level playing field between pubs and supermarkets when it comes to the sale of alcohol. It could be argued that, in principle, there is nothing wrong in taxing alcohol as Chancellors have done so through the years. However, if higher taxation is placing one group of businesses retailers – the pubs – at a disadvantage, then there must be a serious inquiry into the whole trade of alcohol retailing.

However, even those pubs which are thriving are under threat and there is also the case for local councils to step in to support those local pubs which are being discarded by brewers. Once closed, they are bought by property developed and knocked down to make way for more flats.

The case of the Vulcan pub in Cardiff is just one example of such short sightedness, especially given its historical links to the area and the fact that, if it was any other type of building, heritage bodies would be up in arms about its potential demolition.

As Dylan Thomas wrote in Under Milk Wood, “The hands of the clock have stayed still at half past eleven for fifty years. It is always opening time in the Sailors Arms”. Sadly, the current environment of regulation, taxation and unfair competition may eventually force even this world famous pub to close its doors as the residents of Llaregub go down to their local supermarket for the latest ‘booze bargain’.

Given this, I would urge all regular pub-goers to support the campaign, launched last week by Camra and the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) to "Save the Great British Pub" and ensure that the pub remains an integral part of our communities and society in general.

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