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The importance of Newcastle's pubs

December 10, 2014 8:19 PM
By Cllr Greg Stone

Newcastle city centre has many pubs - but far fewer than it has had in the past, and very few remain in some parts of the rest of the city. We spend a lot of time on licensing issues to make sure that pubs and bars are safe and well managed but little time considering their economic viability: Last week I proposed a motion to Newcastle City Council which highlighted a couple of issues that are highly relevant to the continuing existence of many pubs.

Many pubs are hubs of the local community or neighbourhood - we can all point to local examples from our wards, though mine has only two: the Corner House and the Lochside, which serves Cochrane Park. Pleasingly the Northumberland Hussars has recently reopened just over the ward boundary, and is proving remarkably popular.

Some pubs play an increasingly important role in adding to the quality of life of the city and in attracting tourist visitors. Newcastle is able to point to a range of really good quality pubs, gastropubs, and brew pubs. The recent recognition of Newcastle as the UK's favourite city destination in the Guardian Travel section identified some particularly good ones - the Free Trade, the Cluny, the Tyne, the Bridge Tavern, the Broad Chare, Bacchus, the Crown Posada and the Cumberland Arms, all of which I am happy to have frequented.

But despite this important function, the long term trend has been downwards as pubs have suffered from the economic downturn, and increased competition from supermarkets and drinking at home.

A number of popular pubs have closed as the companies that own the premises have taken the view that they can make a greater return selling the site for development.

The Egypt Cottage was one of the oldest pubs in the city with an important cultural history; but is sadly no more.
Residents of Brunton Park are still disgruntled about the loss of The Royal George, which was built at the same time as the estate, but now sold off for redevelopment as a care home. Shieldfield has lost several to student housing; others have been lost to supermarket conversions. Others have been left empty and unloved after pub companies have closed them and put in place restrictive covenants on their reopening as licensed premises.

This might be legal and permitted by planning policy but it does impact on communities and local quality of life . I would like to see more done by the council to promote the inclusion of pubs on the register of Assets of Community Value in Newcastle - although one third of listed Assets nationally are pubs, none to date are in Newcastle.

The other main challenge faced by pubs is a question of economics. Many publicans are small businesses struggling to get by at a time when trade is reducing and costs are increasing. The role of the pubco's - the pub management companies - has deservedly come under the spotlight for what many would see as unduly restrictive practices. Good, hardworking, responsible publicans have frequently been hit by restrictions forced on them by the pubcos who own the premises and who impose punitive rules on their tenants. They have been challenged by campaigners and MPs, and the Government has agreed to incorporate a new regulatory Pub Code within the Small Business Bill to ensure fair market rents.

The Pub Code, though welcome, only goes so far. Backbench MPs of all parties have supported efforts to include the "beer tie" within new legislation. This forces tenants to buy their beer from the pub company at rates that are typically well above market rates. This adds a significant burden to their efforts to make a living. 57% of tied publicans are struggling financially. 88% of publicans identify the tie as a significant factor in their difficulties.

This motion therefore seeks to welcome efforts made by pubs groups, CAMRA, the Fair Pint campaign, and others to promote the Fair Deal for Your Local Campaign. It commends the efforts made to change the legislation to end pressure on tenants to buy through the pubcos at artificially high prices and buy on the free market. I am very pleased that their efforts have paid off , and that a new clause to this effect was agreed by the House of Commons on November 18th, and that the Government has agreed not to oppose it.

This should have the effect of significantly improving the economic health of many pubs, and will encourage the growing local microbrewery and craft beer sector. It will mean more pubs stay open and it will mean more publicans and their employees will keep their jobs. That is very good news at a time when we are encouraging small businesses, and I for one drink to their good health.

Cllr Greg Stone