The silent crisis engulfing our pubs

Pub workers are battling against a corrupt set of markets rigged against them.

Pub workers are battling against a corrupt set of markets rigged against them.

Mark Dodds sits opposite me in a café. He looks bereft as he clutches a little cappuccino. It's as if he was made to stand behind a bar, and he looks awkward in a chair. After sixteen years of running his pub in Camberwell, it finally closed down in September.

"We were making a profit until 2005," says Dodds, "We were still a viable business, we just got squeezed from the top. I fought and fought but in the end I had to let go... Honestly, it's a relief to be signing on."

A silent crisis is engulfing our pubs, and the reasons behind it are little known. It blows like a chill across the country, sweeping in and out of the boarded up pub fronts in our inner cities all the way to our remotest rural corners where punters huddle over their pints in their few remaining social centres.

Last year sixteen pubs closed every week. To put that in perspective, that's over two every day. In the last two years, over 1,000 pubs have disappeared from Britain's suburbs alone.

If this was just the result of market demand, the story would be a sad one. But the real story inspires anger. Pub workers are battling against a dark, corrupt set of markets that are rigged against them. Many are going down not because they need to, but because they're forced to.

Think of your local pub. The chances are that it will be "tied", meaning that it is most likely owned by one of the big pub companies. That people who are actually running that pub - the "Publicans" - are forced to pay rent at prices the owners decide (dry rent) and buy beer at the prices they set (wet rent).

These pub company giants are not household names. Enterprise Inns owns 6,000 pubs; Punch Taverns owns about the same. Looking from the outside, it's not easy to tell which pubs have ties and which don't. They don't have to be chains. Today over half of Britain's pubs are tied, and it's squeezing them into submission.

In one of the most shocking statistics, a recent IPPR report found that 46 per cent of publicans in tied pubs earned less than £15,000 a year, compared to only 22 per cent of non-tied publicans.

I'm not often disappointed by the FT, but when they reported on the decline of pubs in this article last week, they failed to tell this story.

"Tied pubs offer you promises of support and training and good beer prices, but they are often lies", says Jonathan Mail at the Campaign for Real Ale, "It's only after you've invested £50,000 of your own money that it doesn't turn out that way, and your beer prices suddenly jump arbitrarily high."

Mark Dodds said he had to buy £2,000 of beer a week from his pub company, when he could have bought the same amount for £1,200 from a wholesale supplier down the road. When he first took over the pub the rent was £32,000, but at the next round of negotiations his pub company wanted to more than double it. The 68 per cent hike they finally settled on, combined with another rise in the next review, bankrupted him.

"If I'd been able to keep our profits for extra investment," says Dodds, "I could have made that pub work."

Why would any pub company want to squeeze its managers in this way? Some say short-termism. As long as you gain the target level of return over the whole portfolio it doesn't matter if one or two get squeezed along the way. In some cases, it may even suit companies to force the publicans out of business so the site can be sold to a property developer. That explanation is at least consistent with the free market, but it still leaves a community without a pub.

We should remember that Britain's 50,000 pubs are more than watering holes. They are centres of our community, as Jamie Wright's sweet film aboutThe Railway in Wales shows. Interesting IPPR research has tried to put an economic tag on the social value of a pub. By factoring in things like the equivalent cost of holding community meetings elsewhere, they found that each pub offered between £20,000 and £120,000 of community value a year. That's on top of the £6 billion tax revenue and one million people they are estimate to employ.

This is not unrelated to the High Streets First campaign. At the moment, betting shops and pay day loan companies can move into former pubs without planning permission. "The Hope" in my constituency was the last pub on Rye Lane, now it's a Paddy Power. Local people feel that they are losing control of the high streets they love.

Of course pubs face other challenges. Demand is falling. Competition is increasing. Supermarkets are serving a new generation more interested in intoxication than conversation. With beer duty set to go up 10p a pint in the budget on top of VAT rises, there are worries that another wave of pubs will be pushed over edge, and free holders like the Railway are also at risk. But according to IPPR's research, it's still the tied pubs that are suffering most.

So what do we do about it? Dodds is exploring setting up a co-operative pub chain, The People's Pub Partnership, and it's worth supporting. It's also worth asking your local pub whether they are tied, and how they are being treated. With punters onside, publicans can increase the pressure on owners for a better deal.

As for policy, the Campaign for Real Ale is calling on the government to give publicans the choice to leave the tie completely at their next round of rent negotiations. Pub companies would still have a few years to make their ties attractive, and pubs wouldn't leave all at once. It wouldn't just help the publicans and the communities that treasure them, it would also be consistent with the free market.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.