The village pub is the focal point of the local community. So many of our villages have become mere dormitories as residents leave every morning to work in London or nearby towns. Facilities have been lost, the post office, shop, school and pub, leaving only the church and village hall as community buildings. But these are only used occasionally and do not provide a ready meeting place. Although community spirit has all but disappeared in urban settings, there is still a vestige left in rural villages, especially with more people working from home.
And yet pubs are still closing at an alarming rate. According to CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), fourteen pubs in Britain closed every week in the second half of last year. That showed a reduction, the figure was twenty for the first half of 2017. It is interesting to note that the number of large pubs is actually growing, mostly in urban areas, whilst smaller ones struggle to survive.
The reasons are clear. Whilst beer consumption is increasing marginally, more is purchased in supermarkets and off-licences and less in pubs. Indeed, in 2014 for the first time, sales from shops overtook those in pubs. Of course, many have to drive to the pub, whilst beer bought in supermarkets, often at heavily discounted prices, can be enjoyed at home. Business rates are one major factor, bearing much more heavily on a small rural pub than on huge supermarkets. VAT and excise duty bear equally on both but, again, supermarkets have economies of scale to cope.
Many pubs try different approaches to increase trade. Some hire top chefs to become high end restaurants aiming for a Michelin star. There are prime examples in the Newbury area such as the Woodspeen and the Blackbird at Bagnor. Others try the Soho wine bar approach, but this is rarely successful in rural villages.
When pubs become unviable, the owner usually applies for planning consent to convert the buildings into residential accommodation. Such is the concern at the rate of closure that local planning authorities resist applications unless the owner can prove that there is no hope of saving the pub, usually by marketing it as a going concern. In some cases, landlords have been suspected of deliberately running down the pub in an attempt to prove it is not economically viable.
There have been numerous local examples of pubs closing down but where subsequent planning applications have been turned down. The White Hart at Hamstead Marshall is one where over 100 objections to the planning application were received and consent denied twice. The owner appealed the decision but that was lost last year. It had been extensively refurbished in 2011 but never made a profit and was closed in September 2016. Now, with no realistic alternative, the owner plans to reopen the pub in the near future.
The Winterbourne Arms is another pub that is closed and awaiting a decision on a planning application for conversion into housing. There have been over 200 letters of objections so far and a concerted campaign to retain it as a pub. With friends and relations living in the village, I can attest to the hugely successful social focus provided by the pub in the past, a major catalyst for community cohesion. The previous landlady, Jan Simpson, became ill and consequently decided that she was no longer able to run the pub so closed it despite the fact that it was profitable. She then sold it in August 2018 to Nicholas Roffe, the publican of the Furze Bush and Nags Head, on the understanding that he would reopen it as the village pub. However, no attempt has been made to reopen; instead the planning application was lodged.
One pub that went through this process some years ago is the Tally Ho at Hungerford Newtown which was bought by a property developer who applied for planning consent to turn it into three houses. 350 people signed a petition to save the pub as part of a campaign to keep it open. A limited company was formed and the pub purchased when planning consent was refused. There are over a hundred shareholders, many local but some from all over the country, even one from Australia. They may not receive a dividend but their investment attracted tax relief, for many more valuable. Bed and breakfast rooms were developed upstairs and it is now a well-run and popular community pub with excellent local beers and wholesome unpretentious pub food.
Social cohesion is under threat in this country as views become more polarised, not least because of Brexit. It is essential that we know our neighbours and look out for each other, especially in an ageing population. As a lack of housing and inflated prices make it more difficult for local families to live in the village of their birth, much of the community spirit has been lost. Pubs could do more, perhaps selling staple produce such as milk and eggs or newspapers, offering tea and coffee throughout the day. Equally, local people must support them if they are to be viable, not simply buy their tipple in the supermarket and drink it at home. The village pub is the sole remaining critical place where friends and neighbours can meet and socialise, at least where there still is one. We must do all we can to save those that remain.