Opinion

PUNCH UP IN THE VILLAGE

Pub 1Punch Taverns, England’s largest pub landlord, owns the friendly pub in the village. Carol and Graham are the hardworking couple who lease The Parish Oven from the pub chain.

It’s just a short walk from our cottage and only a mile from the spot where the borders of South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire meet. Google Earth shows we are in Yorkshire, but the Post Office insist we are in Nottinghamshire and so impose their post code on us.

Thorpe Salvin is a posh little village, where the garden club sponsors half barrels filled with flowers along the lanes, and the quaint buff sandstone stone houses of the wealthy business people and professionals escaping from the cities nestle next to the farm workers’ cottages.  We’ve made the outside of our plain little 1960s brick bungalow look better with external improvements, such as clematis covered trellises either side of the living room windows and a new paint job. We plan more. Years ago, our next door neighbour surreptitiously acquired our flower barrel and the acquisitive scrap and car parts dealer refused to return it. So for a long time there were two barrels on one side of our shared driveway and none on the other.  There was nothing for it but to buy another one and have the gardener plant it while we were away. We returned in late summer to find our barrel in full bloom, the only one in blue and white. All the rest of the village has barrels full of red geraniums.

Pub 4The reason I mention this is because we’ve met Alan in the pub and had a good chat about the flowers he grows for the village garden club barrel planting scheme. By the time all the barrels are re-planted in the autumn we will be in full compliance with the lane’s colour scheme, albeit a bit lopsided with two barrels on one side and one on the other.

Apart from our pub, there are two more local pubs owned by the largest pub company in the United Kingdom. One is The Loyal Trooper in South Anston and the other is The Beehive in Harthill. One can imagine how much attention these three small country pubs get from a landlord which at one time owned a massive 7,000 establishments as they gobbled up the pubs brewery chains were divesting. In the intervening 17 years they’re down to a mere 4,000 locals.

The Loyal Trooper was Diane’s late father’s favourite pub, but with drink driving laws being what they are in England these days, we prefer to walk up the lane to our own local. But we do stop by one day to find out what they think of Punch Taverns. Although it’s recently gone through extensive renovations, it has retained its old-fashioned charm. There’s a noisy group in the working men’s bar, where a couple of soppy golden retrievers lie on the wooden floor. There’s no current publican, Corinne the cook has been promoted to manager and I have a chat with her over a whisky (just one! I’m driving) in the more upscale and carpeted lounge bar. This charming lady explains that her pub is worse off than most as another chain of a dozen or so pubs sub-leases from Punch. This means that by the time they get their supplies, they are far more expensive than they need to be with two layers of the supply chain taking their cut.

Pub 3Every time we pass The Beehive it looks a little run down and there never seem to be any cars in the parking lot. As a result, I haven’t felt inclined to drop by, even in the name of research. So I was surprised to learn it’s the 2014 Pub of the Year for the district of Rotherham. Landlady Emma was given the award by the Campaign for Real Ale, which promotes community pubs and traditional beer. Perhaps the fact that there’s a real craft brewery right next door might have something to do with the judging. The neighbouring Harthill Brewery also won the prize for best bitter.

Rumour has it that their mutual landlord Punch is currently in trouble and the company has been threatening to throw itself into administrative receivership if negotiations to secure its financial future fail. Perhaps there will be some good fallout and locals will be able to buy themselves out of their onerous leases. Punch isn’t the only pub company in trouble. They’ve all been so avaricious that legislators are looking into their behaviour.

Five years ago the House of Commons published the results of its enquiry into pubcos. The report called on the Government to act urgently. The MP chairing the committee said: “Our inquiry found alarming evidence indicating there may be serious problems caused by the dominance of the large pub companies. The committee was astonished to learn that 67 per cent of the lessees surveyed earned less than £15,000 per annum and over 50 per cent of the lessees who had turnover of more than £500,000 pa earned less than £15,000 – a three per cent rate of return. The lessees may share the risks with their pubco, but they do not appear to share the benefits.”

A petition with 44,000 signatures was delivered to Parliament this summer, to renew pressure on the government and its pledge to reform the large pubcos. One issue is that tied licensees must purchase all their supplies directly from the pubco, which might charge them at least 50 per cent more for beer than consumers pay for the same beverage at the supermarket. “Some supermarkets are selling beer cheaper than water,” said Tony Jerome, a spokesman for CamRA, which promotes community pubs and traditional beer, quoted in a story in USA Today. “You can pick up a beer for 50p a tin, the equivalent in a pub could be more than £3.”

In August this year, The Guardian newspaper reported that the rate at which British pubs are closing has accelerated to 31 a week, quoting statistics from CamRA. The peak closure period for pubs was between January and June 2009 when 52 pubs ceased trading every week. Nearly 6,000 landlords having gone out of business in the past four years. There are now 54,490 pubs left in the country.

The lessons for the Brits are clear: get out to your local and have a beer while you still have a pub down the road, and write to your MP and bitch loudly about the hold the pubcos have over their tenants.

I hope our neighbours in Thorpe Salvin, South Anston and Harthill are listening.

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