At risk: why more York pubs could soon disappear

7 Feb 2014 @ 9.05 am
| Food & drink, Opinion
Another one bites the dust. The once thriving Junction on Leeman Road now under threat of demolition. Photograph © Mtaylor848 on Wikipedia
Another one bites the dust. The once thriving Junction on Leeman Road now under threat of demolition. Photograph © Mtaylor848 on Wikipedia

York CAMRA’s Nick Love says we will lose more well-loved locals until the poor publican gets a fairer deal

They’re interwoven into the fabric of the nation, at the heart of the community and are the envy of the world. British pubs are like the best of friends – there when you need them most for whatever reason, be it celebration or commiseration.

They’re not judgemental and are happy to see you even if you haven’t been for a while. They’re welcoming but discreet when you need some time for introspection in a quiet corner and delighted when you come with friends for some bacchanalian revelry.

So why then is one the few truly egalitarian meeting places currently experiencing a battering from all sides?

Let’s look at the charge sheet: the beer they buy and sell is vastly overtaxed by each successive government; and they’re being targeted by developers for conversion to lucrative housing.

City councils, including York, are looking at introducing a late night levy – basically an annual fee towards policing anti-social behaviour; the smoking ban hit them harder than most; while supermarkets are proactively selling loss-leading booze.

And vitally the very people they should be able to count on most for support – the “PubCos” (pub companies) are squeezing them until their pips squeak.

In the face of such an anti-competitive onslaught – is it little wonder that 26 pubs per week are closing their doors for the last time?

Pity the publican

As a result of this and neatly popped into a pigeonhole titled with the sanitised euphemism “collateral damage”, you have the downtrodden pub tenant; or “landlord” as you knew him when the pub you grew up drinking in wasn’t now a boarded up desolate carcass of discarded memories.

The big PubCo debate, recently brought into sharp focus by CAMRA and a debate in Parliament, has highlighted just what an unattractive vocation managing a public house can be.

Forget the romanticised whimsical image of the cosy pub with roaring fire, run by the fiscally secure genial host who pours you a frothing pint without a care in the world, whilst his wife provides home cooked treats for the contented throngs.

Running a pub is a hard shift at the coalface. Long hours are the norm in these days of extended opening hours.

You shut late then face another hour or two of cashing up and cleaning up whatever detritus your clientele have kindly decided to embellish your fixtures and fittings with.

You stumble wearily to bed with half a thought on the joys of getting up in the not too distant future to restock or to take delivery of beer at quarter past stupidly early o’clock with an eye on 11am and a licenced groundhog day of sorts.

It would be half bearable if the rewards were commensurate with your toils. Not so.

A recent CAMRA survey revealed the shocking truth that more than 84 per cent of landlords tied to buying beer from the PubCo’s earn less than £15,000 per year. That’s £11,500 less than the average UK wage.

Worse still, further research suggests that a significant number earn less than £10,000 per year. Basically the bar staff are earning more than the publican in these establishments – a situation that is perverse in the extreme.

Before: the Turf Tavern, a thriving pub on Thanet Road, Dringhouses. Photograph © Betty Longbottom on
Before: the Turf Tavern, a valuable community asset on Thanet Road, Dringhouses. Photograph © Betty Longbottom on
After: the Turf Tavern is demolished to make way for housing. Photograph: Google
After: the Turf Tavern is demolished to make way for housing. Photograph: Google

Paying two rents

It all comes down to the pub tie:

  • 27,000+ pubs belong to companies that rent them out to tenants.

  • “OK” you say, “what’s wrong with that?” Nothing so far…

  • the next pre-requisite of this arrangement is that the tenant must source their beer from the pub company

  • not only that, but (and here’s the real eye opener) they can charge the captive tenant up to 50 per cent extra per barrel than the open market price

  • putting it simply – the publican is paying two rents – one “dry” and one “wet”

  • How fair is that? If you want the absolute clincher – ask yourself this…

    How can a company such as Enterprise Inns that owns more than 5,600 pubs – each with an average income of £65,000 – allow most of its tenants to earn just between £10,000 and £15,000?

    So the ball is now in the government’s court to bring in a statutory code of practice that would allow tenants to be no worse off than their counterparts who run “free of tie” pubs and bars.

    Open the market

    CAMRA believes that this rebalance must include an option for lessees to become free of tie, accompanied by an open market rent review, so that they can buy beer on the open market.

    This can only be good for the pub market as a whole – in effect 25,000 small businesses buying beer from good local breweries – a wealth of what we have in Yorkshire, and employing more staff as they get more popular.

    You only have to look at York for the exemplification of this in practice. Some of York’s most popular pubs and the majority of Good Beer Guide pubs are free houses.

    So here we have it, the grand old British pub and the long suffering landlord: a symbiotic relationship that’s been on the go in various incarnations for nigh on 1,000 years.

    Lauding the landlord

    It’s impossible to understate the importance of the landlord, landlady or manager to the experience you receive when you visit a hostelry.

    A good “innkeeper” can transform a venue by sheer weight of personality.

    It will be this happy breed that I will be focusing on over the next couple of months – with interviews with the landlords of all of York’s Good Beer Guide pubs.

    We start with two of the “new breed” – the charismatic Kevin Jones who is the powerhouse behind the continuing success of Brigantes and the whirlwind that is Khaled Abdulgani who is spearheading the transformation of Pivni including a newly initiated table service and a total refurbishment to include new seating areas, coming in March.

    After that, expect a cracker of an interview with the irrepressible institution of the York licenced trade that is Shaun Collinge at The Maltings.