Friday, 29 January 2016

Held in trust

The Fleece, Bretforton - a historic pub owned by the National Trust
Cooking Lager has sometimes been known to tease me by arguing that pubs are just like any other retail business and, if they’re not successful, the best thing is to shut them down and replace them with something else. He’s certainly got a point, that some people seem to struggle with the concept that pubs are commercial businesses at all, and few are likely to mourn the demise of a trendy bar in the ground floor of an office block, or a Hungry Horse on a retail park.

But some pubs mean much more to people than that – they become part of the community, memories of good times and past landlords are handed down from generation to generation, and they are valued as a local resource even by people who don’t visit them much. Pubs, after all, are about the only kind of business that people actually visit to spend time socialising. In the centre of many English villages, you will find a pub and a church opposite each other, and they are seen as something that defines the character of the place. The problem, though, is that affection alone does not put any money over the bar or in the collection plate. As Rowan Pelling has perceptively written, We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them.

Many of the vocal “Save the Pub” campaigners seem to view the decline of pubs as the result of an unholy combination of asset-stripping pub companies, greedy developers, apathetic councils and lax planning laws. There’s something in this, and pub companies certainly can’t be regarded as model businesses, but the activists pretty much entirely ignore the long-term decline in the demand for pubs. Yes, some pubs have been revived by better management but, seriously, all those beached whale estate pubs, inner-urban locals where all the drinkers have disappeared, isolated rural inns? Nothing could have saved most of them and, at the end of the day, you can’t force people to keep unprofitable businesses going.

So maybe, if we want to keep endangered pubs, we need to grasp the nettle and accept that many will never be successful in strict commercial terms. This will mean stumping up the money to buy them without any expectation of financial return. There’s a clear precedent for this in the form of the National Trust which, from small beginnings, has expanded to have over four million members and to be custodians of hundreds of precious historic buildings. In a sense, unspoilt pubs could be regarded as “the people’s stately homes”. The National Trust does own a handful of pubs, amongst which the lovely Fleece at Bretforton in Worcestershire, pictured above, is probably the best known. You could also consider the amount of time and money that has been expended over the years on preserved steam railways.

It wouldn’t necessarily need a National Pub Trust: it could be done regionally, or through associations of local co-operatives. Possibly pub operators could be given a tax incentive to dispose of pubs to pub trusts rather than for alternative use, just as owners of historic buildings can waive inheritance tax if they bequeath them to the National Trust. If the trust owned the freehold and paid for upkeep, then outside operators could be invited to run the place as a pub for minimal or zero rent. If nobody was even interested in that, volunteers could open it up on Sunday afternoons for afternoon teas and a few bottles. Yes, it might lead to a lot of twee, middle-class pubs preserved in aspic but, as long as the fabric remains intact, then surely that is infinitely better than no pub at all. And, if you want to keep pubs that no commercial operator considers viable, it’s the only way it can be done.

Individual membership of the National Trust is £60 a year. I’d happily stump up £30 for pubs. Would you?

14 comments:

  1. Well argued, and good link to Rowan Pelling, but I think we'd end up protecting the Boar's Heads and not The Four Heatons (RIP) if you know what I mean. I'm sure the NT expects the pubs in Bretforton, Lacock, the Lakes etc to pay their way with food sales.

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  2. I'm sure we would, though I don't think many were too bothered about losing the Four Heatons anyway. Of course, the people with the wherewithal to stump up money would tend to be middle-class. Even the Olde Vic is a bit middle-class compared with the Jolly Crofter just up the road.

    I imagine the pub operation at the Fleece is leased out to a tenant rather than being directly operated by the NT, but the rent probably doesn't cover any capital element as it normally would.

    If anything like this came into being, my expectation would be that it would slowly acquire National Inventory pubs that the owners wanted to sell off.

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  3. Ta for the mention but no, would not stump up a brass farthing pal. Not stopping you stumping up. Set too, lad. Get the National Trust of Dumpy Pubs (NTDP) set up before countdown starts. Plenty of sentimental fools will give you money they'd otherwise have earmarked for the cats home.

    Had to laugh at the appeal for charitable status for this dubious exercise though.

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  4. I like the idea of community owned pubs, almost like the land buyouts in the Hebrides and fan owned football clubs. Another alternative could be the community brewhouse concept like in Franconia, where there is a village brewhouse and different families serve the beer on a rotating basis.

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  5. @Cookie - I'd be disappointed if you hadn't replied in that vein.

    But sure if the National Trust can get charitable status for preserving symbols of hierarchical oppression, sure the NTDP would qualify for preserving the humble working man's alehouse. I'll get Jeremy Corbyn on the case.

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  6. Quite clearly the answer is nationalised pubs as per Carlisle 1916 - 1971.

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  7. No worries Mudge.

    I'm sure Corbyn would sort you out as part of his plan to destroy Britain.

    As the actual National Trust has no commercial competitor where's the harm in its charitable status?

    Your trust will exist in a market with commercial competitors. Why should should you be exempt from corporation tax when Timbo Martin ain't?

    As your trust is for uncommercial pubs you should make no profit anyway, offsetting any surpluses against wider losses so why need an exemption from a tax you won't qualify for through loss making?

    Though I don't intend to join your trust, can I have a free badge and NTDP fleece anyway, as we're mates, so as to appear middle class? Ta.

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  8. Oh, Kev

    At least with Mudges idea, only gullible fools are expected to stump up. Nationalization involves us all stumping up. No ta.

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  9. I know its probably misleading to draw any meaningful conclusions from a small self selected sample, and if I thought about it for long enough could probably find an equal number of counter examples. But for each of those pub types youve named I know of at least one in my region where that pub style was on the brink of being the next Tesco, executive flat, empty space and probably wouldnt have been really missed,when the right owners came along with the right business plans and totally transformed them into massively successful and financially viable pubs again.

    our local branch pub of the year, which went onto be regional pub of the year as well so in the running for national pub of the year, had been shut for over 8 years before the current owners took it on and turned it around in a few years.

    so it is possible, but its like any business they survive or fail on making the best out of what they can offer and the ones that fail most often are the ones who maybe dont commit so fully to their business which I know when they are tied to a pubco isnt easy,but the ones that are driven to succeed generally do very well.

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  10. @Cookie - surely the NT competes for paying visitors with English Heritage, privately-owned stately homes and other types of tourist attraction

    Anything resembling the public ownership of pubs would be the kiss of death. Just imagine all the health warnings and being told you've had enough when ordering that second pint!

    @Stono - yes, there are examples of particularly well-run pubs bucking the trend. But the fact that one pub can do it doesn't mean that the rest can. The long-term decline of pubs isn't down to pubs being badly run

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  11. English Heritage has charitable status. Are you suggesting all pubs get charitable status for a level playing field with NTDP?

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  12. What I'm suggesting is that the actual operation of the pubs would be handed over to third parties who would be taxed on profits in the normal way. And AIUI charities have to pay tax on any profits from trading with non-members anyway.

    If this comes nearer to fruition I'll have to look into the implications of charitable status. I think the ability to reclaim tax on donations through Gift Aid is one, which CAMRA, as a campaigning organisation, can't do.

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  13. Sounds like one of them dodgy tax dodges that are all the rage. Registering the NTDP in the Cayman's?

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  14. This is totally irrelevant since, within a generation, the consumption of alcohol in public will either be illegal or considered so antisocial that no one will dare risk it.
    Drinking will only take place at home - the drinks being imported from Europe - or in secret cellar bars and speak-easys

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