Category: Pubcos

| Pub closures, Pubcos, Pubs

Tom Kerridge: sharing the plight of pubs in a way everyone can relate to

Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge started its four-week run on BBC2 last night. I was asked to interview Tom about the series for the Radio Times, and got a sneak preview. He brings out the human stories behind the stats better than anyone.

Photo: Ellie Kynaston/BBC/Bone Soup Productions

There’s a moment ten minutes into the first episode of Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge where the viewer’s emotions are flipped, as if someone has performed a metaphorical judo move that leaves you momentarily flat on your back.   

Tom is eulogising the great British pub, or as he calls it, “the neighbourhood’s living room,” as he heads for the White Hart Inn in Chilsworthy, Cornwall. This award-winning country pub – it was CAMRA’s Cornish Pub of the Year in 2019 – has stunning views down the Tamar Valley, excellent food, a mouth-watering range of local beers, and most of all, the lively atmosphere generated by landlady Amy. Amy is a human dynamo who, if she had to, could probably pour you a perfectly kept pint, cook your dinner, host the pub quiz and change a barrel in the cellar all at the same time. 

Tom looks on in wonder, his grin a mile wide, like he’s just found his new local. And then he sits down with Amy, (who only took over the pub with her partner Ian in 2017) to talk about how business is going.

At first, she’s as bright and focused as she was behind the bar, and then suddenly she says, “Oh. I’m going to get emotional”, and collapses into the kind of racking sobs that only come from total despair.

Hang on.

We know how programmes like this work: a famous TV celebrity goes into businesses that are failing. We, as viewers, get a vicarious thrill from observing how crap some of these places are. Jesus, even we could do better! Gordon Ramsay’s entire schtick is built around pretending to throw up some horrible food prepared in a filthy, rat-infested kitchen by some idiot foolish enough to let the cameras in.

But the White Hart, along with the other two pubs in the first programme (the Prince Albert in Stroud and the Golden Anchor in Nunhead, South London) are perfect pubs, run by people who clearly love what they are doing and know how to do it. How can these pubs be in trouble?

Each business has its own issues, but if there’s a common theme running through all four pubs in the series, it’s that the people running them need to add a keener, shrewder business eye to the the long list of talents they are already displaying in running pubs that are popular, but not profitable.

The remedies may not always got down well with the regulars: the first thing Tom tells the Prince Albert to do is put up the beer prices. The domino players nursing one beer all night in the Golden Anchor are shifted to the back room to make way for the craft beer-drinking hipsters who are gentrifying the local area. And the White Hart is turned into a building site, somehow remaining open and doing its best to keep brick dust out of the punter’s pints.

But when I spoke to Tom, the first problem he brought up was the pubco tie. Although I’ve written about this issue many times over the last ten years or so, both here and in the trade press, I generally try to avoid it these days because even if I write a piece attacking the tie, as far as anti-pubco campaigners are concerned I’m attacking it in the wrong way. No matter what I say, I get scorn and often abuse from campaigners, because I just don’t understand the issue, apparently. This is the same reason why most of my fellow beer writers avoid the pubco tie altogether – they feel it’s just not worth the hassle. (According to some campaigners, though, the real reason none if us write about it is that we, along with various trade press titles and bodies such as the Office of National Statistics, have been paid off handsomely by the evil pubcos to keep quiet.)

Whatever side you’re on, Tom Kerridge does understand the issue – his own three pubs are subject to the same tie as any other Greene King tenant. “The business model is supposedly that you pay inflated prices for beer in return for a cheaper rent than High Street rates. But it doesn’t work out like that, and it’s not sustainable,” he tells me on the phone (speaking about the tie generally rather than his own situation.) Interestingly, he tells me he feels “we’re now rapidly finding that those rents will be very much decreasing” thanks to Covid.

The pubco tie is the most complicated issue I’ve come across as a writer on beer and pubs. On the TV programme, Tom Kerridge presents it, without allowing his genuine anger to cloud the issue, as clearly and persuasively as any campaigner could hope for, in a way that is clear to BBC2 viewers and persuasive to mainstream journalists.

Anti-pubco campaigners, we beer writers are never good enough for you even when we try. I say this without any snark or hostility intended: Tom Kerridge is the man you need to make meaningful change.

Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge is on BBC2, Thursdays, 8pm.

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| Pub closures, Pubcos, Pubs

Is The Moon Under Water Finally Getting its Head Above the Surface?

The Office of National Statistics says the number of pubs in Britain has grown for the first time since 2007. Surely that’s got to be good news?

Talk about shooting the messenger, then chopping the messenger up into tiny bits, then burning those bits, and pissing on the messenger’s ashes.

Last year the Office of National Statistics (ONS) launched their ‘Economies of Ale’ report into the changing numbers of British pubs. It painted a gloomy picture that we were used to, but I spotted an interesting quirk in the data. It showed that small, independently owned pubs were closing faster than larger pubs owned by the big pub companies. So I wrote a column pointing out that, if this was the case, the big pubco tie can’t be the main reason for pub closures – not if pubs that have nothing to do with the pubcos are closing faster than pubco-owned pubs. That’s simple logic. It’s not to say the pubco tie isn’t a factor in closures, but it can’t possible be the main factor.

Not for the first time, the piece was given a misleading headline by the sub-editors, which didn’t accurately reflect the tone of the piece. And as few people these days bother to read beyond the headline, if you follow the debate around pub closures at all, you can guess what happened next.

According to my social media feeds, my story was proof that the ONS, the whole British Guild of Beer Writers, the entire UK national media and most of all, me personally, were involved in a vast conspiracy and were being paid off by the likes of Ei Group (formerly Enterprise Inns) and Punch Taverns. I had been paid thousands of pounds by the pubcos to write this piece. I was apparently performing sexual favours on the chief executives of these companies, and I was actively supporting their actions in the pub market because I hated pub tenants and lessees and the businesses they ran. I absolutely loved big corporate CEOs because, in ways that were never made quite clear, their actions benefited me professionally.

The people who wrote these comments remain hurt and bewildered that most beer writers refuse to engage with them.

Anyway, twelve months on, and the latest Economies of Ale report paints a more optimistic picture. The total number of pubs in the UK has grown for the first time since 2007. Not only that, but while the trend towards bigger, urban pubs remains, even small pubs – those hardest hit by the lethal cocktail of factors driving pub closures – have shown fractional growth.

The total number of pubs increased by 315 from 2018 to 2019. This represents an increase of 0.8%. The number of small pubs (employing fewer than ten employees) increased by 85 – a 0.4% increase.

Now, a friend of mine has pointed out that when you dig right down into the data, rounding numbers in individual regions may mean this very modest increase is even smaller than it looks. It’s also worth noting that the modest increases in 2003 and 2007 – the only other years this century with a net increase – did little to alter the overall downward trend that’s seen more than a quarter of British pubs disappear in the last twenty years.

But rather than quibble about the size of the rise, what’s more important is that the number of pubs hasn’t gone down.

Every time new pub closure figures are announced, news outlets just love to run stories about ‘the death of the pub’. To be fair to them, people do care more about pub closures than they do about say, cask ale, and these stories always bring the phone lines and comments pages to life. But I always get the impression that there’s bit of glee in sharing the doom and gloom.

I’m often invited onto radio shows to discuss the issue, and my line is always clear: the pub has been around for a thousand years, and it isn’t about to disappear in the next twenty or thirty. But pubs reflect the society they are part of – always have – and as that society evolves, so must the pub. We now have so many more leisure alternatives than we used to have and less leisure time to spend on them, so the pub can’t possibly retain the utterly dominant position it once had in British culture. That doesn’t mean it’s dead – as a society, we still love our pubs – but we need fewer of them than we once did, because we go less often. What we’re witnessing now is not a terminal decline, but a correction.

It’s just my opinion. But ONS numbers would seem to bear it out. If we change the scale of the graph above, we can see the movement more clearly.

That massive, horrible drop between 2007 and 2013 was the result of a clusterfuck of negative factors: the smoking ban started in 2007, the global financial crash happened in 2008, and in response the then government thought it would be a good idea to punish an already reeling industry with the beer duty escalator, which helped the total tax burden payable on beer rise by 40% in four years.

Them, from 2014 onwards, the decline slowed dramatically. I wouldn’t be surprised if numbers did fall again in the next two or three years, but unless something else catastrophic happens (can you think of any looming economic disaster this year? Nah, me neither…) then I reckon pub numbers will, overall, stay pretty constant around this level from now on.

That’s not to say pubs don’t need fighting for, or that can all just relax now. The world has changed and pubs will continue to face stiff competition from coffee shops, casual dining, Netflix, X-box and a whole host of things that weren’t really around twenty or thirty years ago. But we appear to be over the worst. This data was launched last Thursday, and no one has yet asked me onto a radio show to discuss the death of the British pub.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff when you dig down into the data. Later this week, I’ll blog again on some of the interesting quirks and wrinkles on what it tells us about how the pub is evolving, and how the picture changes across the country.