Keith Flett considers the recent Budget boost to community pubs
The past year of the pandemic has caused massive problems for nearly everyone in the brewing, beer and pub trades area. Nearly everyone, because global big beer such as ABInBev and even large UK-based concerns like Marstons - now a PubCo - have weathered the economic times well enough. But that is not true of course for many of those who work in the industry who at best have found themselves furloughed with no real guarantee of future employment and at worst have lost their jobs.
Estimates of the number of pub closures so far vary but the number is likely to be significant. This is particularly true for ‘wet-led’ pubs. That is those who sell mainly beer and little or no food. They have been shut for most of the last year without recognition of the particular issues they face by any of the four UK Governments. Measures announced in the March 3rd Budget by Rishi Sunak include a range of grants, loans and VAT cuts (but not on alcohol), while beer duty remains frozen despite the long running CAMRA claim for it to be cut. UK alcohol taxes are amongst the highest in Europe. In short it is in the ‘better than nothing’ area of Government interventions.
Against this backdrop the Government however has at last decided to do something specifically on pub closures. A lot of it is probably spin, designed to appeal to a particular section of Tory voters. In a tabloid paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, Boris Johnson was reported as claiming that he is ‘on the wagon’ until the pubs re-open and that re-opening is a priority.
Some might suggest that there are other more pressing matters for financial help - the NHS for example. It is not however an either/or matter. There is such a thing as society, and pubs play a key role in that even for many who don’t drink. They are meeting places, where much of the social fabric of society is knitted. Without them isolation and alienation start to predominate. In this context, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget announcement of a £150 million fund to help communities save places and spaces they see as central to their local area, has been widely supported.
The scheme works on matching funds raised by local community campaigners up to a limit of £250,000. £500,000 might not be enough to buy out quite every pub, depending on location, but is probably sufficient for some that are struggling. Three key questions emerge.
Firstly the last year has seen numbers of Government funding schemes most of which, with the exception of furlough, have proved patchy, slow and bureaucratic. Will this be any different?Secondly, the Government has a notorious record of channelling public money to its mates. Might this be just another way of doing that. Thirdly, supposing that neither one or two is correct, or only partly so, what might a radical community pub actually look like?
So far we have only a headline document, carefully written by civil servants. The detail of how to apply for the fund will appear in June 2021, when pubs should be able to open without significant restrictions. The focus of the scheme - which applies across a range of institutions that a local community might want to save from being lost including pubs - is on proper governance from established community groups rather than ad hoc campaigns that come together on a particular issue.
Shock horror! Activists!
We’ll see in June where the balance lies. It does read though as if well-off Conservative-led efforts in the shire counties might be preferred to what the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden often refers to as ‘activists’.
There are two further caveats here. Firstly there are a number of existing well-run campaigns to save community pubs, sometimes successful. Often these are informed by the experienced campaigners of CAMRA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. They can offer advice and strategies for community pub buy-outs and they are an officially recognised ‘player’ by the Government.
Secondly there is the stage before a bid for a pub gets underway, and that is making sure that a developer doesn’t get in first, knock it down and build flats. For this planning permission is required as it’s a change of use. However in the absence of any alternative proposals it's likely to get nodded through. That’s where the Asset of Community Value legislation needs to be used. An ACV allows bids on pubs to be halted while a community buy-out is attempted - specifically that means raising funds. How this legislation works in conjunction with the Community fund (if it does) will be important.
Successful community pub buy-outs require hard campaigning and fundraising work and this is now a more common feature of life. If there is success there are more issues to address. An historic pub where I live in Tottenham, the Antwerp Arms, was saved and is now a very successful place. It meant a lot of hard work by an experienced community management team and it also meant a good pub manager who was on board with the ideals behind the project.
So what might such a pub look like? Firstly it should not be in any way a top down project. The Carlisle State Management scheme is an interesting historical template, but for the community buyout to work it needs to be from below.
That means a truly co-operative pub, democratically run by regulars and staff to the mutual benefit of both. There are examples of this working, but there are a lot of market and society pressures to be understood and dealt with.
Such a pub could and should be a genuine community space welcoming to all, drinkers and non-drinkers. It also though has to work as a business and turn a profit. Here lie tensions that require careful community management governance and stewardship. Let’s hope for the moment though that the new community fund provides the chance to give this model a try.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.