Property boom is bust for pubs

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Why are so many rural pubs closing, at the rate of a dozen or more a month? Is it lack of consumer demand, or some new force at play in society? The...

Why are so many rural pubs closing, at the rate of a dozen or more a month? Is it lack of consumer demand, or some new force at play in society? The answer lay in two fascinating BBC2 programmes last week: property development and the insatiable demand for housing.

The first programme, A Very English Village, charted the four-year battle mounted by villagers in Ditchling in East Sussex to save one of their locals, the Sandrock Inn. Property developers wanted to turn the pub into housing and finally won, thanks to a vote by the district council based in Lewes.

Later that evening, in What's Britain Worth?, veteran broadcaster Peter Snow and his son Dan traced the changing face of British society and wealth creation. I am old enough to remember when the country's wealth came from manufacturing - an era when we dug coal and made cars and steel. But manufacturing is now much diminished and it's finance and property that are the main engines of wealth creation today.

While I'm content to have a mortgage on one house, other people are playing the property game. They use the value of one property to buy second and third houses, which they then rent out. Higher up the food chain, big property companies are desperate to either build new houses or to turn existing business premises into homes to buy or rent.

The Sandrock, well-placed close to the centre of Ditchling, and with fine views over the downs, proved tempting bait for a property firm. The film that followed the battle to save the pub was all the more impressive and even moving because the villagers made it themselves. No one ranted, though some were close to tears when the council voted in favour of change of use.

What was impressive about the villagers' approach was that it united all social groups in Ditchling. Surprisingly fruity upper-middle class voices joined those with distinctive Sussex burrs to decry the loss of a pub they all saw as an important amenity, an essential part of village life.

Some people on low incomes who had been driven out of Ditchling as a result of high property prices came back to the village to lend their support. All the villagers could scarcely contain their rage at the behaviour of one local politician who sits on both parish and district councils. She joined the campaign to save the pub and then proposed the motion for change of use at the crucial district council meeting. Political hypocrisy is not confined to the national scene.

One reason used by those who wanted to turn the pub into housing was falling custom and sales in the Sandrock. The reason for that is a familiar one: a pub owner that constantly changed managers. The result was a lack of that vital contact between customer and guv'nor that forms the bedrock of a good pub. Ditchling is lucky in having two other pubs and many Sandrock regulars, with new faces behind the bar every few months, voted with their feet.

Old black and white footage showed that when tenants from one family ran the pub, it had been successful and enjoyed a strong local clientele. One former tenant, now in his 80s, said (with a big, ironic grin to the camera) that he had made enough money from the pub to buy his own home when he retired.

He also repeated the wise words of his mother when he took over from her as tenant: "Look after the customers in the public bar - they're your regulars. People in the saloon come in now and again but the people in the public bar come in every day."

The people of Ditchling are splendid people. They fought the good fight to save the Sandrock. They failed because in modern Britain money and property represent power and it seems that such unbridled power finds easy allies among local politicians.

The Sandrock Inn is now the Sandrocks, a complex of expensive apartments. Quietly but graphically, the narrator ended with the famous words of writer Hilaire Belloc: "When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England."

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