Safeguarding the Great British Pub
The tide maybe turning on the Great British Pub, as switched on managers, the campaign for real ale and enlightened councils are helping to safeguard the future of the much loved local.
Pub landlords and bar managers, be under no illusion, the British public need your establishments more than ever. A night spent with friends down the pub is not only a social lubricant; it can be good for your mental wellbeing – drinking sensibly of course.
The pub is also a community hub. A recent study found that the presence of a village pub demonstrates a healthy local community. Pubs inject money into the local economy. They host a variety of social events. The best pubs and bars are the de facto heart and soul of city neighbourhoods and rural villages.
Unfortunately the headline news concerning bars and pubs fixates on the continuing number of closures. However, here there is some better news. The latest figures released by Camra show that 21 pubs each week are closing – this is down from 29 in 2015.
So what is being done to protect the great British pub? According to Camra’s chair of pub campaigns, Paul Ainsworth, quite a lot actually. Camra regularly lobbies government, councils and other bodies where relevant, to guarantee that planning laws are strong enough to ensure that people can’t just change pubs into something else without going through a process.
“It’s about a friendly welcome, both to regulars and strangers alike, so you feel wanted and welcome as soon as you walk through the door.”
Moreover, the organisation is also trying to assist pubs in being successful. “Because why would you want to close a successful business?” Ainsworth asks, sensibly. “We’ve done some research recently on what people like about pubs. What works. And we’ve been getting some fairly strong and clear messages on how pubs can help themselves.”
Indeed, Camra has recognised three key qualities that can go a long way to ensuring a pub’s success and safeguarding its future.
Great Customer Service
“It’s about a friendly welcome, both to regulars and strangers alike, so you feel wanted and welcome as soon as you walk through the door.
“That staff make customers feel comfortable, that service is quick, polite and enthusiastic. That people feel they’re getting good value for money, particularly in relation to the quality of product they receive.
“We also urge staff to engage customers, get feedback from them to ensure simply that what they’re doing is what the customers want.”
“Obviously being Camra we say that quality real ale is a must. But also other drinks. So quality wines, quality soft drinks and so forth.
“When it comes to food we don’t say that every pub should serve food, but if they do it should be well presented, ideally home-cooked and not just processed stuff.
“And then there’s a whole raft of issues around cleanliness. Particularly toilets, that’s really important. Pubs should also offer information about what they do and when they do it. So we’d urge pubs to have a comprehensive and up-to-date website full of information so customers can find out what’s going on.”
Be connected to the local community
“Encourage social interaction. Run events, quizzes, allow local groups and societies to meet in the pub. Have good access. Ideally be welcoming to families, have children’s play areas. It’s all about plugging yourself in to the community and promoting the health and wellbeing of people in that community.”
Ainsworth is quick to point out that there is no magic wand that pubs can wave and suddenly the future is laden with gold, but getting these basics right is a must.
“No, there isn’t a magic formula,” he states, “but there are certain key factors that if you get those right you’re probably 50 per cent of the way there. And if on top of that you can add some entrepreneurial flair, use your imagination and offer something a bit different then all the better.”
Successful pubs were closing and the character of Wandsworth was being damaged as a result
It’s not just what pubs can do though. Last year, London’s Wandsworth Council earned itself the title of the UK’s most pub-friendly council when it placed a protection on two-thirds of the borough’s pubs, by removing permitted development rights from 120 bars and pubs. In short, this means that developers can’t turn them into shops or flats without planning permission.
Wandsworth Council’s deputy leader Jonathan Cook told us that for too long successful pubs were closing in the area and the character of Wandsworth was being damaged as a result.
“Pubs are clearly an important part of the character of a place – they help provide that sense of what a place is – and we got the sense that something was being lost,” he says.
The final straw centred on the successful campaign to save Tooting’s the Wheatsheaf. Cook felt this was symptomatic of a wider malaise across the capital.
— The Wheatsheaf Sw17 (@wheatsheafTbec) February 20, 2017
“The more we looked into it the more we thought, yeah, this is a worrying trend and the thing of course is that once they’re gone, you’re never going to get them back,” he recalls. “It’s about a sense of character – how do we want the borough to look in five to ten years time. If we’ve lost a lot of these lovely old boozers that are very popular and they’ve become mini-supermarkets, and we haven’t got it in for mini-supermarkets, we all use them, they’re handy, but it’s a question of balance. And the place doesn’t feel the same [without the pubs]. So we thought, actually there’s a compelling argument here that we need to act. And it’s not absolute protection. All we’re saying is if you want to change the use then you need to apply for planning permission.”
And while some have accused the council of being anti-business, Cook is quick to counter that this protection is not designed to prop up failing businesses. Nor does it protect every pub in the borough.
“It’s about a sense of character – how do we want the borough to look in five to ten years time. If we’ve lost a lot of these lovely old boozers that are very popular”
“There’s a matrix of criteria,” explains Councillor Cook. ”Things like historic value, does the pub in question have an anchor role in its locality, is the pub a venue for music and theatre – we’ve got three really well known venues in the borough.”
Cook admits the reaction has been fascinating. The reaction from the public – the residents – has been wholly positive. As have Camra’s comments. As for the pub companies, their response has been “muted, but predictably grumpy”.
“They haven’t been stamping their feet,” Cook says. “It’s not like they’re all wanting to sell off their pubs. Their business model hasn’t been destroyed. I would say that at worst it’s an irritant. It slightly diminishes their room for manoeuvre I suppose. We certainly haven’t had an enormous backlash. I’ve done a couple of public events and interestingly I was half-expecting that sort of reaction to be represented by somebody and it hasn’t tended to be.”
There has also been interest from other London boroughs wondering what the process was. The answer being it was very time-consuming.
“Changing planning laws is not a quick thing,” Cook laughs. “You have to do it thoroughly. But it’s generated a lot of interest.”
Camra is certainly enthused by Wandsworth’s stance. Ainsworth says that the group is lobbying government to strengthen protection around pubs.
“We’ve been campaigning very hard to try and ensure that all pubs are protected in this way,” he says. “Permission should always have to be granted to change a pub, or to demolish it – as it stands you don’t need planning permission to knock a pub down – unless it’s a listed building.
“What Wandsworth Council did was excellent and we’re keen for other councils to do likewise”
“What Wandsworth Council did was excellent and we’re keen for other councils to do likewise. Unfortunately, many councils are reluctant to do it because it’s quite a lot of work and of course many are strapped for cash. So it is a big ask for them to do it. But we’re hoping that with Wandsworth having taken the plunge other councils will be bold enough to follow suit.”
And as for the future of pubs, Ainsworth is quietly optimistic that a plateau of closures has been reached.
“I’ve been drinking in pubs for a long time,” says Ainsworth. “And generally speaking the quality of the offer in pubs has improved immeasurably. When I think back to when I first started drinking in terms of choice of real ales, the quality of the food, the quality of service… I think standards have generally gone up. They’ve had to because they’ve had to compete with all the other attractions. But also we’ve got so much variety now.”
And that’s something that all pub-lovers can raise a glass to.
The Bedford, Balham, London, SW12 9HD
The Wheatsheaf, 2 Upper Tooting Road, London, SW17 7PG
Wandsworth Council protects 120 pubs from redevelopment