By George Thomas
One evening in early March, I was working behind a bar in one of Stroud’s many pubs. A few familiar faces had trickled in, but this handful of locals sat talking and smoking outside was a far cry from the usual noise and bustle. When people came to the bar for drinks we’d idly chat like any other night, but in between pouring pints the quiet in the room was almost stifling. There was an awkward tension as hands met, passing drinks and cash over the bar.
By then, cases of Coronavirus in the UK had begun to spike dramatically, and following the initial spectacle of supermarket battle royales over rolls of Andrex, many people had cautiously begun self-isolating. However, as Boris Johnson was skipping COBRA meetings and very little clear direction was being given to businesses by the government, the pub was still open.
As winter now creeps in, it’s easy to forget just how quickly some people’s lives and livelihoods were turned upside down in the spring. As the public began to follow social distancing guidelines, pubs immediately saw a huge drop-off in business. For many landlords and ladies across the Five Valleys, the writing was on the wall. It was clear the responsible action was to close their doors on their communities, even if it meant welcoming in financial insecurity. And for those who didn’t, it was only a few days later that the official lockdown began and the choice was made for them.
In April I first spoke to Harry, manager of the renowned Woolpack in Slad. Harry had in fact been managing a bar in Mexico in 2009 at the time of the dramatic Swine Flu (H1N1) outbreak in that country. At the time, he had to endure a swift lockdown with none of the financial support we have seen in the UK this year, meaning his bar’s prospects looked dire. However, this meant that when the notion of a nationwide lockdown first began to appear in the UK, Harry was quick to identify the ways the Woolpack could keep trading when things got tough.
Over the summer many pubs had to dramatically rethink their business model, with several leaning into the role of being local village stores rather than local watering holes. The Woolpack was amongst the first to make this change in the Stroud area, and Harry explained how with social distancing measures, local produce supplied daily and clear sunny days, the pub was able to become a popular source of groceries and (socially distanced) social interaction for the community. This change in business provided some much needed relief for Harry and his staff, in the form of a small but steady trickle of income over summer’s lockdown.
Of course, not every pub was in a position to refocus their efforts to selling veg over the counter; indeed, many local institutions found their existing profit margins disqualified them from receiving meaningful grants from the government. Across the district owners and managers closed their doors this March, and we’ve yet to see them open again.
For many rural businesses, to experience even a few weeks of financial uncertainty is an untenable situation; this was true before the pandemic, and unfortunately the story is much the same now, even with government grants. Despite pubs often only functioning on a month to month basis, breweries and commercial landlords continued to demand high rents, which simply cannot be met when communities have to remain in their homes. Unfortunately this set of conditions cannot be laid squarely at the door of the impact of the pandemic.
For many pubs, the stiff competition from chains like Wetherspoons and increasing sales of alcohol in supermarkets means financial insecurity is a daily concern. As wealth and assets are hoovered up by chains and property developers, pubs are often stuck on a slow march to destitution and foreclosure. It is a vicious cycle which threatens to undermine our country’s pub culture, as unscrupulous bosses like Tim Martin replace culturally and communally significant venues with faux-Victorian facsimiles of their former glory.
On a national scale, the pub industry has seen a steady decline for many years, with Stroud’s own establishments bearing testament to the hardships felt by landlords across the country; coronavirus has done nothing but dumping fuel on the embers of financial insecurity and more importantly, wealth/asset consolidation. It is for these reasons that our valleys contain an increasing number of empty public houses (or ones replaced by restaurants that opt towards providing a ‘gastro’ experience). It is also perhaps why Stroud’s remaining venues are often so dearly loved by their communities.
At the start of summer’s lockdown I spoke to Lotte and Miles from Rodborough’s vibrant Prince Albert Inn. Anyone familiar with Stroud’s cultural milieu will know the Albert as one of the area’s most exciting music venues on top of being a welcoming pub in its own right. When they told me that they couldn’t expect a rent freeze from the company who owns the building (Punch Pubs), I asked why they too hadn’t made the transition to ‘local grocery shop’ to make ends meet. Lotte explained that they weren’t comfortable taking any risks when it came to community transmission of the virus, but also other businesses in their area were already filling the niche. Instead, she immediately began to picture what would need to change before they could safely welcome the community back into the pub (or at least its garden).
Displaying commendable foresight, Lotte was already planning for table service, with staff adorned in PPE and screens at the bar and between tables to reduce risks of airborne transmission. Miles set out their plan to give the pub and its outdoor areas a spring clean, the likes of which it hadn’t seen in years: “Usually we’re far too busy – by the time you’ve started clearing out the old records in the corner, you’ve got to open the doors and get behind the bar!”
When pubs reopened in July, the Albert was able to greet its less trepidatious (and perhaps much thirstier) locals with local ales, hand sanitiser and a fresh makeover. Most importantly, the pub (which had already boasted a pop-up kitchen for local, independent culinary businesses) in its new incarnation saw Miles become chief pizza chef – allowing them to meet the requirements of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s (initially) much-acclaimed Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
As already mentioned, the Prince Albert has a reputation as a music venue – hosting bands both large and small, famous and obscure, often as they tour the country, especially during the festival period over summer. “Lots of these guys also come over on tour from Europe,” explained Miles, “but this will be a huge shock for all those artists, and ourselves of course.” The Albert exemplifies many concerns our country faces when it comes to the hospitality, entertainment and culture industries in light of the pandemic. Rampant uncertainty and high levels of unemployment cannot be remedied with pizza alone – we are looking down the barrel of a much more shocking social and economic crisis, the full scale of which might not be fully apparent for months or even years.
However, for a time it appeared this unsteady combination of government subsidy and a gradual return to ‘normal’ social interactions could have been enough to see many businesses through to the end of the year, as we all adapted to the new reality of pandemic Britain. Yet despite social distancing, one-way systems and track and trace procedures on the door, we’ve been forced back into lockdown in the face of massively increasing rates of transmission, hospitalisation and death across the nations of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, it has begun to appear that the financial benefits of Eat Out to Help Out were in fact dwarfed by the negative epidemiological impact; pubs and restaurants have been identified as significant vectors of community transmission in recent months.
This winter’s lockdown has seen pubs remain open, again as takeaway businesses – with alcohol still permitted through click and collect, or delivery. The £1.1 billion being shared amongst councils is of course welcome, but the lack of clear planning for long term support of the hospitality sector leaves the fate of pubs unsteady.
It is clear that consumption-focused policies like Eat Out to Help Out can pose a serious threat to the public health, but more importantly, it leaves establishments relying on grants and (another) short-term furlough scheme to make up for a severe drop in business. This approach to fostering growth will not make up for the financial shortfall, especially during winter and with ongoing social distancing measures.
As highlighted by the grassroots organisation Campaign for Pubs, property costs, whether rent or mortgage, are the biggest cost pubs are facing. For those still scraping by, these obstacles will not be overcome any time soon – that is why Campaign for Pubs in association with the British Pub Confederation are “calling on Government to support pubs for as long as the Government restricts trade.” As part of their No Pub No Rent campaign they are asking for a rent freeze – so that landlords, their staff and families are able to take care of themselves, before grant money is simply moved into the bank accounts of pubcos.
The Raise the Bar campaign also aims to increase the number of community pubs which are eligible to receive financial support, but currently don’t meet the £51,000 rateable value cut-off point required. These efforts, coordinated through Campaign for Pubs and supported by hundreds of businesses across the country, would be a step in the right direction.
As a nation we cannot sit idly by while our social and cultural fabric is eviscerated by a callous government and unscrupulous landlords and developers. A shocking example of such behaviour was shared earlier this month; the Ring O’Bells pub in Somerset received a letter from Butcombe Brewery, demanding a rent increase of over 100% from £28k to £65k. They were also informed that they “must also increase our annual spend with the Brewery by a staggering 100% plus”. This devastating message was “delivered via the post and with no round table discussion to re negotiate our terms”.
It should go without saying that pubs have received a huge outpour of support this year, but it is clear that when profit-hungry companies hold the reins, landlords are left powerless. We must demand financial support for the institution of public houses: not just over winter, not just with the return of the furlough scheme until March, but afterwards too. We face an uncertain future for communal spaces in this country, but together, we can make sure that after the worst of the pandemic passes, there will be welcoming public houses for us all to return to.
Photo used courtesy of Patrick Partridge.