Friday, 13 February 2009

Pub closures: Opportunity for Social Enterprise?

There is no escaping the fact that village pubs are in crisis.

I was in the Star Inn at Wenhaston last night for a regular meeting of my water tower society and I learned that we may not be able to schedule our next meeting in April as the pub might close after the present landlord leaves at the end of March.

The Star is a very popular village pub but the hearsay in the bar was that it has always had difficulties in
attracting tenants, partly due to the tied terms offered (and hearsay again) because the brewer Adnams allegedly treats it like unwanted step-child as the site it occupies is a very desireable building plot.

The trade The Star gets from the loyal community plainly isn’t a source of great profits but the pub makes a living although sales have been falling. This can be due to many factors including the turnover of landlords the pub has had. Having lost its shops and hardware store, losing the pub would be a disaster for Wenhaston and would turn it into a bedroom community for Halesworth (god forbid!). In 2008 nearby Holton lost their Lord Nelson pub and its building and grounds are beginning to show signs of neglect now.

This raises all sorts of questions about the role of pubs in the community. They are firstly a business and most often are owned by a conglomerate who appear willing (as their duty to their shareholders dictates) to close unprofitable pubs. But what exactly makes them unprofitable? In the case of many it may be the terms the landlords have to work under. Some landlords find the terms applied in marginal locations too onerous and so move on, as has been the case allegedly with the Star. Although, given the number of pubs closing, the brewers may need to readjust their terms otherwise there will be no outlets to sell their beer from.

Punch Inns have recently announced they are reducing charges to their tenants aligned with the fall in the retail price index.

There is one news angle in this that there are rumours of a proposal for Wenhaston worthies to form a consortium to buy the Star and suggestions from elsewhere do the same with the Lord Nelson. Holton unfortunately does not have the wealth that Wenhaston does. It would be in Wenhaston's interests to shore up their property values to keep the pub going and the latter proposal would require applications for funding to run the pub as a social enterprise to establish an affordable restaurant and create employment. It would make sense to make a pub kitchen into a commissary for a local meal-on-wheels service or provide school lunches or become a wholesome take-away. The sad fact is these are pipe dreams. Nobody has stood up yet and said they would or could do this. Such ideas do exist and have succeeded though.

In the depths of the Great Depression, the one in the 1930's, Clifton's Cafeteria was set up in Los Angeles serving cheap wholesome food and became famous for never turning anyone away because they couldn't afford to eat. It's still going, even thriving today. In their own words "10,000 ate free before Clifford (Clinton, the owner) could open an emergency "Penny Cafeteria" a few blocks away to feed, for pennies, the two million "guests" who came during the next two years. He could have gone bankrupt honoring his childhood promise were it not for faithful suppliers, generous vendors and the grace of God, who saw him through those difficult days..."

One reason I don't visit pubs myself is that my income can't support present beer prices unless it's a Weatherspoons (with their very welcome £1 pints thank you!) and living in a rural area without practical public transport, you have little alternative but to drink or drive. And I don't feel the desire to drink alcohol that much socially anyway. To relax, I would rather have a cup of decent tea of coffee and sit in a comfy sofa and talk with friends if they were around or have Wifi and read newspapers and books if they weren't. I have yet to find a decent latte in a pub.

My vision would be to turn the Lord Nelson into a rural 'Starbucks' or a continental Relais offering decent coffee, wi-fi, cheap wholesome food and offer a place for people to grab a coffee in the morning on their way to work, to gather socially, for clubs to have meetings (as the water tower society supports the The Star six times a year) and have their social functions such as birthday parties. It would serve alcohol but enticing customers to neck down booze would not have the emphasis that brewers naturally would want. Therefore it will never happen.


There now appears to be local govt funding for pubs to diversify. The EADT reports that under the Suffolk Rural Economy Scheme, rural pubs can benefit from a cash injection of up to £5,000 to help them diversify their business to include services such as a grocery or newsagent shop to serve their local community. Nick and Debbie Sumner - landlords of the Wissett Plough - plan to open a village store to run alongside their pub with a £5,000 of that provided by Suffolk County Council's Rural Economy Scheme.

But not everyone welcomes their pubs diversifying. Serial poster Simon Cockerill of Offton wrote on the EADT website:

What a load of twaddle.. Diversification requires a skill set that cetrain people may not have, it may require adittional staff that some wont be able to afford. Allow smoking back in pubs, that's what's killed the trade, simple. Now you suggest turning them into a greengrocery, or newsagent... yes, that's the great british pub isn't it... Wake up and smell the coffee people YOU'RE killing the face of Britain with all these poxy rules and regulations.. It's not the pubs and working man that needs to adapt, it's our stupid halfwit government!!

Yes, exactly. Smell the coffee. That's what I'd like to do.

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