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Is a tight-knit community enough to save the local pub as more and more call last orders?
HAVING a pint down at the local is as quintessentially English as afternoon tea, or the Queen.
But with competition from supermarkets offering cut-price alcohol and successive governments targeting beer and wine for tax revenues, the future of the industry hangs in the balance.
Hardly a week seems to go by without a threat to yet another pub. Scores have been turned into shops and homes as breweries, owners and landlords across Southampton and Hampshire give up the ghost.
The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) says 26 pubs close each week and there is no sign of a slowdown in pub bosses calling last orders on their businesses.
But many people are unwilling to give up their pub without a fight. They are still seen as a landmark, a community asset and a focal point for the neighbourhood.
Some of these battles have been successful, but more have not, meaning the disappearance of a multitude of famous names from our streets.
So is this an industry in terminal decline? Does the golden age of the pub belong in the past? Is there anything that can be done to reverse the trend of closures?
Regulars celebrate after saving The Bittern.
One man trying to buck the trend is Glen McInnes, landlord of The Bittern in Southampton, which is under threat of being turned into a McDonald’s.
Regulars and community figures have rallied together to try and save the pub and have been backed by the city council, which has turned down McDonald’s plans on the grounds it was registered as an asset of community value – as reported by the Daily Echo.
Glen feels The Bittern is “weathering the storm” by being the centre of a strong community.
“We’re still profitable business. We have had some of the busiest days in the last few weeks that we have had in years. It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said.
“Our weekends are our bread and butter but we’re doing quite reasonably. Midweek evenings are quieter than the daytimes when we get a lot of the elderly coming in, while the youngsters tend to come in at weekends.
“We’re maintaining our profit levels and keeping our head above water.”
But the uncertain future is certainly not helping them. “Not having an idea of how long we’re here for is not conducive to running a good business,” he said.
Rob Whatley, of Camra, believes landlords need to do more to get punters in and buying pints.
“I think it’s more difficult for pubs to survive in the current climate but there are a number of pubs which are doing very well and it is possible that the pubs have got to adapt to the current conditions and try to find a niche.
“In order to find customers they’ve got to put in more effort to keep their pub going.”
Chris Reich, chairman of the Southampton Licensing Link, which represents landlords in the city, thinks the industry is evolving rather than in decline.
But he said: “There’s no doubt that thousands of pubs have shut over the past few years. I think a lot of it is due to successive governments just taxing and taxing seeing the industry as a golden goose.”
Chris highlighted the fact that attitudes have changed, that many people are heading out to pubs and bars later in the evening.
He said: “You can walk out of a supermarket with 45 lagers for £20, that’s a problem that pubs are labouring against. Supermarkets can sell alcohol and food at a cheaper rate because they don’t have to charge VAT, which pubs do.
“People will go to the supermarket, get their cheap drinks, have a few drinks and then go into the pubs and bars.
“I think people are a lot savvier about where they can get cheap beers from.”
But Chris also said that there is a diverse range of pubs selling a variety of different drinks, from pubs which sell standard beer and lager to others which sell smaller beers.
“I think pubs have evolved a great deal. You look at the overheads that pubs have got – utility prices increasing, national wages, duties, taxes, there aren’t many spit and sawdust pubs anymore.
I don’t see it as an ailing industry. You just have to walk through the city centre and see that it’s not dying, it is changing. It has reduced certainly, but it’s not dying.”
He believes the fragility of the industry is down to greedy owners “choking landlords” and less to do with a change of attitudes.
He said: “The truth is there have been some changes in what people are choosing to do but the big problem is the relationship with the pub companies and the landlords which is making it almost impossible for many landlords to make a reasonable living.
“Until there’s a change there, a reasonable cut in prices charged, companies will continue to take too much money out of the businesses.”
The Labour MP said national firms which owned pubs were “property companies that happened to own pubs. If they get a chance to sell it or to lease it, they will do.”
While he accepted there were changes in taste and habits, he was convinced that those who owned their own pub were able to develop a thriving business. He said: “Where people own their businesses I think there’s a good future for them. I fear for the number of pubs that are owned by the big pub companies, I don’t think they will let people earn a decent living.”
The fragile state of the pub trade was highlighted again in the past few days when the Government announced there would not be a blanket approval for pubs to gain a late licence for the forthcoming World Cup – as had been the case previously with royal weddings and the Queen’s diamond jubilee.
With England kicking off their first match after last orders are due to be rung, many pubs would be faced with having to pay £21 for a temporary late licence while councils will be sunk in bureaucracy administering all the applications.
The British Beer and Pub Association, which represents England’s 49,400 pubs and had co-ordinated the bid, believes the extended opening hours could be worth £20m to the pub industry.
However Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a review of this decision and a public consultation.
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