|The Fleece, Bretforton - a historic pub owned by the National Trust|
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?