The Bow Group: Great British Pub Debate

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 22, Committee Room 11, Palace of Westminster Debate: The Great British Pub Debate – Safeguarding A Cherished Institution Speakers: Bob Neill, MP, Under Secretary of State, Department of Communities and Local Government, and Minister for Community Pubs; Mike Benner, Chief Executive, Campaign for Real Ale (Camra); Andrew Pring, freelance writer and consultant to the pub trade Chairman: Brian CattellPolitical Officer: Ben Harris-Quinney The well-attended debate suggested the Great British Pub is indeed cherished by many, but the speakers’ differing views showed that safeguarding it is not a simple matter.  Andrew Pring, a journalist in the pub trade for over 11 years, indeed suggested not every single pub is ipso facto worth safeguarding. He pointed to historical trends illustrating an ongoing decline in pubs numbers as society changed – from 100,000 in 1904 to about 50,000 now – and said there was still further shake-out to come. This would not necessarily be a bad thing in itself as those that survived would be run by more professional retailers than is the case in some pubs these days. Mike Benner rejected the view that there are still too many pubs in Britain, arguing that what may currently be a badly-run pub can be turned round if changes are made in the way pub companies operate. “We have a situation where talented entrepreneurs are not attracted to the trade because of some of the pubcos. We need structural change from the Government so people can make enough money out of running a pub.”  Bob Neill, a former member of the Bow Group, said he was a great supporter of community pubs, and often frequented those in his Bromley and Chislehurst constituency, unlike his teetotal and rarely pub-visiting Shadow on the Opposition benches, Chris Williamson. He also noted that the possible closure of The Bull public house in The Archers was a reflection of a wider problem facing Britain today which is of great concern to many people. He said the Government was looking for ways to help community pubs survive, and pointed to the Localism Bill currently progressing through Committee Stage in the House of Commons, which he claimed gave more powers to local communities to preserve pubs on the verge of disappearance. Benner applauded the Bill’s interest in helping community pubs survive – sometimes through by communal acquisition from a pub company – but he also called for the Abolition of the Land Agreements Exclusion Order, which would expose the large pub companies to the full force of competition law through a requirement to self-assess a pub’s viability. And he urged Government to push reforms on the pub companies, including a tenant’s right to buy in and sell a guest beer.  Pring supported Benner’s action calls, and both were in agreement on the need for Government to desist from annual beer-duty tax hikes.  All three speakers were united in accepting there is no “one silver bullet” solution to the pub trade’s problems. But they all agreed that ways must be found to preserve as best possible this cherished institution.  The lively discussion from the floor that followed was continued until much later in The Red Lion pub next door, where Bob Neill sportingly repaired with the speakers and audience until Parliamentary duties called him away.