Thursday, August 04, 2005
There isn't a tavern in the town
"And if you're in London," (as Valerie Singleton was wont to say, to the irritation of millions of provincial Blue Peter viewers), you could do a lot worse than visit this year's Great British Beer Festival (2nd-6th August at the London Olympia).
Despite the continuing threats from the corporate brewing behemoths, and continuing brewery closures, craft brewing of traditional ales continues to thrive in Britain. These ales, besides being pleasant to drink, are an important part of our local distinctiveness.
The greater threat nowadays is to our traditional pubs. Yesterday's Guardian usefully reminded us that,
Dr Samuel Johnson once noted that "there is nothing yet which has been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern".But the same report also noted the closure of local pubs throughout the UK.
A Camra-commissioned study showed that 26 pubs close down in Britain each month, largely due to developers and publicans cashing in on residential investments. Every time that happens, the pro-pub groups argue, a little piece of the community dies.An earlier report in the Guardian on 23 July explored this problem in more depth. We learn of the corporate 'PubCos', turning once distinctive local pubs into branded clones, and using the 'beer tie' to impoverish landlords. We are also reminded of the words of one-time Liberal MP Hilaire Belloc.
"The temptation at the moment is, because of the uncertainty in planning laws and experience, that any pub is probably worth 50% more if you change its use for residential or commercial," said John Longden, coordinator of The Pub is the Hub.
"I know of developers buying a rural pub, putting up a sign saying 'Bikers Welcome' and losing all the local trade, then saying the pub is not viable. This is a wake-up call for the community."
The traditional pub has long been the cornerstone of British culture. If you think this is an exaggeration, then hear it from a Frenchman. Hilaire Belloc, the poet who made England his home in the early 20th century, spent much of his time quaffing flagons of ale in various taverns. Among all the guff about empire, cricket and the playing fields of Eton, Belloc thought he had pinned down where the heart of his adopted nation really lay. "When you have lost your inns," he said, "drown your empty selves. For you will have lost the last of England."And losing them we are.
The Countryside Agency laid out the scale of the problem in 2001 when it reported that, for the first time since the Norman Conquest, more than half the villages in England had no pub. The 7,000 rural pubs that remain are closing at the rate of six a week.This is not simply a matter of nostalgic sentiment. As CAMRA's Chief Executive noted in a recent press release,
"The pub provides a place for local groups to meet and a safe environment for friends and family to relax and enjoy each others company. The loss of a valued community pub will have a negative impact on the local economy, community and tourism. 69% of people recognise the important role pubs play in community life."Politically, we have a choice. We can either support community action to save local pubs (as the Pub is the Hub and CAMRA's new campaign are now doing). Or we can take the view that we must not 'interfere' in the activities of corporate PubCos and property developers because 'market forces' are sacrosanct.