Saturday, 7 March 2009

A frothy debate

This week the all-party Beer Group of MPs held a ‘summit on the UK pub crisis’, backed by the British Beer and Pub Association. The summit was attended by no fewer than five Ministers, which ensured it got more attention than your typical parliamentary meeting.

The Group is concerned that five pubs a day are closing and argue that this risks the sustainability of many local communities, as well as threatening thousands of jobs. Whilst I enjoy visiting pubs as much as the next person, and have recently got into real ale thanks to my ale loving father and partner, I don’t accept this romantic notion of the ‘great British pub’.

The pub lobby has successfully promoted the idea of pubs as a community facility, deflecting from the debates we should be having about the health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption, crime and anti-social behaviour linked to pubs and clubs, and the other factors in the decline of many communities in Britain (starting with housing and transport, and let's not even get started on Post Offices…).

We shouldn’t let nostalgia about the closing of pubs blind us to the fact that many pubs are awful places, and that good pubs can thrive, despite the recession and the changing habits of consumers.

ippr, currently conducting a research project on pubs in association the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), threw its weight behind the campaign, describing pubs as 'a place for people from different walks of life and different backgrounds to get together'.

Yet my experience is that many pubs, particularly those in rural areas, are unwelcoming to strangers and have poor facilities. Pubs like these cannot expect to survive without appealing to women and families and by being more creative in the services they offer. There simply aren’t enough men who will spend several evenings each week drinking beer, with little more than a dartboard and jukebox for entertainment. The industry fought the smoking ban to the bitter end, yet this is surely a crucial element in their claim to a broader appeal.

There are issues about the way big companies squeeze the life out of tenanted pubs (those that are leased to a licensee) and I don’t agree that beer should be disadvantaged in tax terms compared to other drinks. Real ale can have a lower alcohol content than mass produced lagers and could be promoted as a more civilised way to enjoy alcohol.

We should also ban supermarkets from selling alcohol at loss-leading prices. However even if they are forced sell alcohol at its proper price, it will always be cheaper to drink at home rather than in a pub because of the overheads involved. Pubs need to give us a reason to go there by providing a welcoming atmosphere, entertainment and good food.

The industry also needs to clean up its act by not serving children or people who are drunk and accepting responsibility for crime and disorder caused as a result of people drinking (including the costs involved). These are the issues that the industry and politicians should focus on, rather than promoting the idea of the good old-fashioned pub, which is unsustainable and doesn’t meet consumers’ needs.

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