Pubocalypse Now

Whether by default or design, many of the UK’s pubs will not open again, impoverishing our lives when we eventually emerge from our hiding places. And it’s not just the beer that will be missed. 

‘It’s their only outlet,’ says Sarah Nixon of her regulars, ‘They come in here win, lose or draw. Who else will listen to their stories?’

You’d think she was talking about a village pub, where everybody knows your business. But Nixon runs the Market Porter, the popular pub by Borough Market that is constantly busy with tourists, market-goers and City types, but retains the heart of a local. Sarah had put into words that aspect of a pub’s worth that doesn’t appear on any spreadsheet. 

If it’s numbers you’re after though, the hospitality industry is the 4th biggest employer in the UK, hiring around 10% of the country’s workforce and directly contributing more than £75bn to the economy annually and more indirectly. 

But despite its economic and social significance, and the great fanfare with which the Government trumpets its support for the industry, many pubs have received no support whatsoever and many more have been actively hampered in their bids for survival by inconsistent and erratic decision-making from on high.

Endangered species

True, the unfulfilled longing for a pint in largely brown premises may not be the most urgent consideration for those detailed with responding to the world’s greatest crisis since Nazis stalked the earth. With 100,000+ deaths in the UK alone, only professionally heartless columnists would countenance fighting fire with petrol by calling for fewer restrictions.

But the plight of the hospitality industry is not about the simple desire to return to normality. Its situation is entwined with a lack of logic and an absence of leadership that has led to one of the world’s least effective responses to this deadly pandemic.

For while every aspect of the economy has suffered, few have been as damaged by swiftly changing policy as pubs and restaurants, coupled with inadequate government assistance. 

If the PM was a pub regular, his waffle would be tolerated, but he sure as fuck wouldn’t be left in charge.

Nothing going on but the rent

With the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, talking up grants and furlough schemes, it looked initially like support was there for everyone. But when the cut-off point for grant support was set at pubs with a higher rateable value of more than £51,000, around 20% of pubs were excluded from the scheme.

‘It meant that any pub that was over this size received nothing, whereas one just under got £25,000 pounds. It was utterly arbitrary and grossly unfair,’ says Greg Mulholland, Director of the Campaign For Pubs, a grassroots organisation working for the support and protection of what for centuries has been the heart and soul of British culture. 

Many have received no more than £3000, some have had nothing. Pubs have fixed costs, most notably rent, that are barely touched by the grants that have been distributed. Some landlords have refused to reduce their rent on premises that cannot legally trade.

‘Many pubcos and commercial landlords were charging excessive, in some cases full rent, despite the pub being closed,’ says Mulholland.

But even those who have described their landlords as hugely helpful may only have rent deferred, to be paid off in full in the long run. It’s going to be a long way back for those who acquire a considerable debt, and ultimately it will have little consequence for the property owners.

It’s a one-sided arrangement. Pubs are forced to close, but landlords are not forced to stop collecting rent. That’s the landlord’s business, their living. But the Covid losses and debts are all being shouldered by one group. And it gets worse. 

Signs of the times

As Tony Barry, who owns The Sheaf and Katzenjammers in Borough, explained to me, ‘Many publicans can’t fold a business if it fails, because some Pubcos won’t let them form a limited company. Some end up guaranteeing the business with their homes. They literally have their homes on the line right now.’

‘If the Government shuts down or restricts a rented business, then both the small business and the landlord must be affected and compensated, not just one,’ added Greg.

‘The levels of support for pubs has been nowhere near enough to cover the ongoing costs they face, to stop many publicans getting into debt. Publicans hear Ministers talk about “unprecedented support” when the reality is that the Government restrictions have decimated their businesses and pushed them into hardship.’

‘One example was the Prime Minister’s hastily announced £1000 Christmas “bonus” for wet-led pubs, but which equates to little over £30 per day, which is basically a round of drinks.’

Three-quarters of the pubs who were promised that grant are yet to receive it. And ‘More than half of the grants introduced to support pubs through the tier restrictions and November lockdown were also yet to be paid,’ according to The Guardian

Grants that have arrived have been gratefully received, but gone in a flash.

Moving goalposts

Thousands were spent on distancing and converting outside spaces to dining areas in line with regulations, only for the investment to be spaffed up the wall by pubs being forced to close just two weeks later. 

‘The changes screwed us over,’ says Geoff Keen, owner of the Pelton Arms and Shortlands Tavern. ‘Everytime the goalposts move, it costs us money’.

It’s almost as if – and I know this is hard to believe – the Government has no plan and no idea what the consequences of its policies are. At least pubs were able to sell takeaway drinks to a public that wanted to support their local as much as it wanted booze. And then…

The latest twist

In belatedly putting the country in Tier 4, the government banned off-sales from pubs, but allowed food sales. It defies logic that you can buy a meal and drink from a pub, but not drinks with alcohol in them. And it forces people into supermarkets, which are facing maskless covidiots on a daily basis.

Keen’s Pelton Arms in Greenwich has constantly adapted to the shifting sands, opening a hatch to serve winter warmers like mulled cider with calvados and hot chocolate with Bailey’s. Now they’re dishing out pizza and Sunday roasts, but only with drinks that can’t legally be exciting. 

Restaurants are in the same boat. As Tony Rodd, chef patron at Copper & Ink (who despite the hardships, ensured food he’d bought was given away to staff, the homeless and disadvantaged), tweeted: 

Con Riordan, landlord at the esteemed Blythe Hill Tavern, felt that publicans don’t have enough friends in Parliament, as fond as politicians are of being pictured in a pub with a pint. But by disallowing takeaway booze – for who knows how long – the very survival of pubs is threatened, while supermarkets’ market share is increased. Would it be too cynical to suggest that Asda, Ocado and Sainsbury’s donating thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party has helped inform the decision? After all, other companies with UK political connections are reaping billions from a crisis in which most businesses are suffering.  

What should the Government have done?

It’s clear that the government is constantly reacting rather than taking charge. Countries that have acted quickly and decisively have fared best: closing borders, mandatory mask-wearing, strict lockdowns and comprehensive testing have all helped. The whole country has been subject to revised regulations and baffling exceptions. But both Nixon and Mulholland feel pubs have been unfairly scapegoated, as does beer writer, Roger Protz.

‘Above all, the Government should have been more consistent and made decisions with more notice rather than making so many last minute. We do also believe that it has been shown that pubs could operate safely with social distancing in place and that this would have avoided many private gatherings and parties which have clearly been an issue in spreading the disease,’ says Mulholland. 

Nixon also points out that supermarkets have no responsibility when selling booze, whereas in pubs, someone is in charge of making sure people behave safely. Having an iconic pub in a tourist area, she’s seen crowds gather outside, even when the Porter has been closed. Groups with bags of tinnies, no toilet and no supervision are a consequence of closing pubs. 

‘There must now be a proper package of support to tackle unreasonable rents and to waive business rates and cut VAT for all pubs, not just on food. In France, for example, where they clearly value their restaurants as a key part of their culture, as pubs are in the UK, they have provided 20% [of turnover] as compensation. This is what needs to happen here to ensure that we never have a situation like the one pubs have faced over the last year.’

Survival

We have already seen around 2,500 pubs close down this year – double that of the year before – and several publicans are openly discussing walking away from the trade. Many pubs will simply not reopen.

Snow joke: Closed for good

Worryingly, where there is business failure, there is opportunity for someone to take advantage.

Greg warns: ‘We are seeing the usual vultures circling in the form of developers and supermarket chains seeking to use the Covid crisis to close more pubs for good. So we also need an urgent moratorium to stop any pub conversions. We have already lost so much of our pub heritage through greed and indifference, we cannot allow this crisis to see the end of the Great British pub and pub culture.’   

Closing pubs feels like society being subtly led away from leisure and pleasure, toward business and money. Which, as anyone who’s read Deserter before knows, we consider to be entirely the wrong direction of travel.

Care for the community

Of course we go to the pub for delicious booze that makes us feel happy and our friends seem interesting. But that’s not all.

The pub can be the only place where people who are alone speak to someone all day. Maybe all week. Its place at the centre of British life, in villages and cities alike, is unrivalled. Nixon worries about her regulars. As she says, ‘It’s literally their only outlet.’

I was struck by that word: outlet. It’s something bean counters can’t quantify – that pubs are places where people give something of themselves in order to be heard, to be remembered, to matter. Ultimately, few of us want to be an island (apart from Fred Madagascar). 

So Nixon texts or calls those regulars she’s concerned about to make sure they’re OK. If pubs were simply an economic entity, a column fighting for room on the Chancellor’s graph, this wouldn’t happen. They are so much more and deserve special consideration. Though for now, a simple understanding of their role and needs would be a start.

Keen said it broke his heart not to open on Christmas Day. He’d normally buy some of the oldies their first pint. Saddened, he went to the Shortlands Tavern anyway, poured himself a Guinness and sat at the bar, alone. 

I couldn’t help but observe that sounded really, really nice. I could almost hear the memory of that pint returning to him before he said, ‘Oh yeah, it was great.’

Who’s thirsty?

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