I was intrigued to read last week that, according to new research, pubs are by far the most common type of community asset.
A survey of 134 local planning authorities in England showed that since 2011’s Localism Act enabled local residents to nominate buildings and land as assets of community value (ACV), pubs make up 36% of all assets listed, far ahead of community centres, outdoor spaces and car parks.
Councils have on average approved 88% of pub ACV applications, versus an average across all categories of 79%.
What struck me about this news is that there are several different ways to read it:
1: Pubs face increasing threat
There are many assets a community holds dear, and it takes effort to pull together an ACV application. The fact so many people have been moved to protect their pubs in this way — more than their schools, libraries and parks — shows that of all the things that make up our communities, pubs are the most vulnerable. Every single one of these applications is a sign of a pub under threat of closure. And the higher-than-average approval rate indicates councils agree.
This is a sad indictment of the industry — are we nearing a time when pubs need to be protected by regulation in order to survive? We should be alarmed by these statistics, not pleased.
2: A victory for campaigning
The Campaign for Real Ale and the Fair Pint campaigners were quick to acknowledge how useful ACV status is in fighting to keep pubs open. They have mobilised support in a way no other sector has, and made it count. The number of successful ACV applications proves that it is worth campaigning, and that the fatalistic attitude of “What’s the point? Nothing ever changes,” is a false one.
The community interest campaign has, in particular, galvanised the campaign against the pubcos, forcing their hand so that we have the bizarre situation where large pubcos, which are supposedly passionate about pubs, are sometimes fighting against their own publicans and arguing that pubs — or some particular pubs at least — are not of benefit to the community. This has been highly damaging in PR terms and of huge benefit to campaigners.
We should be proud of these statistics, not alarmed — even though they show the scale of the battle we face.
3: People value their pubs
It’s as simple as that. We spend so long worrying that the pub is undervalued and under-appreciated and this should be a real shot in the arm to the industry. When a community rallies round its pub, it shows how much it cares. Some people might think this research says people care more about drinking than about schools and libraries, but that is to misunderstand what a community pub is all about.
This research illustrates the pub is the most central and multi-faceted asset a community has. It offers meeting rooms, sports teams, charitable support — so much more than the retailing of food and drink. The high percentage of applications that are approved also shows us councils understand the vital role pubs play. We should be celebrating these statistics for what they reveal about our national character.
So which one is right?
Well, there are certainly strong elements of truth in all three.
The modern news cycle does not favour thought and analysis. Increasingly we are being conditioned to see issues in black or white terms. Are we for or against? Is this good or bad? Are they right or wrong?
The truth is never as simple as that, and if we were to argue this is just a story about campaigning, or that it means nothing in the broader context of pub closures — as commentators under the original news story have — we would be missing the big picture.
There are reasons to be both concerned and optimistic here. But the main thing I take from this research is that pubs matter. It’s not enough to just say they matter of course, and it is sad that we have to turn to regulation to protect pubs, that even profitable pubs cannot assume their future is safe.
But since the success of the campaign against the Duty Escalator, there’s a new sense of hope and purpose around the future of beer and pubs, a stronger sense of purpose in protecting them.
It would be nice to think this is welcome news to both pubcos and those who campaign against them.