More important than post offices

Why governments must protect our pubs

Hilaire Belloc, a Frenchman by birth, once advised us that "when you have lost your inns . . . you will have lost the last of England". On current trends, we have about 50 years left. More than 1,400 pubs closed last year alone. A few days ago, the British Beer and Pub Association reported beer sales in pubs had fallen to their lowest level since the 1930s and, at 14 million a day, were seven million below their peak in 1979.

The smoking ban is getting the blame, along with competition from cheap supermarket booze. In fact, pubs closed at the rate of 1,000 a year throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The fall in pub attendance - which in my family was as conscientious and reverent as other families' church attendance - was then blamed on television.

But I wonder if governments, preoccupied by binge drinking, antisocial behaviour, the breakdown of community life and so on, should not develop policies to protect pubs. I'm not suggesting direct subsidies, but they might consider favourable tax policies and a new look at pub ownership.

Pubs once had an important socialising influence, particularly among the working classes. They were the only places, apart from churches, where teenagers and pensioners rubbed along together. Extreme drunkenness was unusual. Those who habitually misbehaved were frequently banned. An inability to "hold your drink" was socially shameful. People might end the evening with slurred speech and bad jokes, but nobody went to a pub with the sole aim of getting, as it is now described, "hammered". As Mass Observation discovered in the 1930s, drinking wasn't the main point. Pub-going was a social habit.

I know this is an idealised model. As George Orwell admitted, at the end of his famous description of a traditional pub that he called the Moon Under Water, with its "uncompromisingly Victorian" fittings, ornamental mirrors, and complete lack of intrusive music except for some decorous singing on Christmas Eve, no such place existed even when he was writing in 1946. Some pubs were always violent and disorderly. But these were a minority and pubs are still, as Paul Kingsnorth observed in this magazine in 2005, the places "where responsible, regulated drinking is most likely to happen".

Most of their present problems date from 1989 and Margaret Thatcher's attempt to tackle the monopoly of a handful of big brewers, which were using their ownership of pubs to drive smaller beer producers out of business. Under her "beer orders", as they were known, no brewer could own more than 2,000 pubs and, in those they kept, landlords had to be allowed to sell at least one rival beer.

Unfortunately, the brewers simply sold off their entire property portfolios to newly created companies known as PubCos (the founders were often former brewery managers), and made sweetheart supply deals with them.

So, we still had a monopoly, and small brewers still kept closing or being taken over, but we also had what Roger Protz, a leader of the Campaign for Real Ale, called "the corporatisation of pubs". The old brewers, for all their faults, were mostly conservative family firms that didn't wish to meddle with the culture of the traditional pub. The PubCos are typical creatures of modern capitalism, dedicated to shareholder value. They are interested not in maintaining the value of the pub as a community centre for all age groups, which might guarantee its long-term survival, but in maximising short-term profit.

They want young customers, who drink more and spend more. They keep seats to a minimum because people drink more when they're standing up.

They play music as loud as possible because, again, people drink more when they can't hold a conversation. They offer "happy hours", an American invention, hoping that customers get sufficiently happy on the cheap drinks to stay all night downing more expensive ones.

Again, none of this is entirely new. Happy hours started in the 1980s and, as the NS contributor Joe Moran points out in his book Queuing for Beginners, pubs started putting salty snacks on the bars, to make customers thirsty, as long ago as the 1930s. But the PubCos are particularly single-minded, and if the returns from selling booze aren't sky high they maintain shareholder value by selling off the premises.

The main obstacle to their doing so is planning law, which may prevent a change of use. That is why the companies sometimes run down a pub deliberately, putting in a hopeless manager or charging extortionate rent, so that it becomes unviable. Then the council has no alternative but to approve the land being used for luxury homes or flats.

This is an industry crying out for more effective regulation, and it is time ministers took a serious look at it. I'd even say that pubs matter more than post offices.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games