I set up the All Party Parliamentary Save the Pub Group in 2009 because there was a clear and pressing need for a strong, campaigning group of pro-pub MPs to start to call for much needed change to address the wave of pub closures.
The Beer Group, of which I am also happy to be a member, whilst it should and does champion and celebrate our national drink and does so well, it could not and cannot campaign for pubs and publicans - and has at times been too associated with the so called ‘industry’ rather than with pubs and publicans.
So it was time for action to force political change and it has been the Save the Pub Group that has provided it over the last five years of the 2010-15 Parliament.
We have at last seen action from Government and from Parliament in making positive changes, including legislative ones, to help and protect the Great British Pub. First of all, the Save the Pub Group, working with CAMRA and others, saw the importance of pubs specifically in the National Planning Policy Framework for the first time. The new powers in the Localism Bill gave communities the right to list pubs as Assets of Community Value and have a right to bid for them.
Then, working with the Beer Group, the BBPA, SIBA, the IFBB and CAMRA - and thousands of campaigners – we finally got rid of the hated beer duty escalator introduced by Alistair Darling – and then not one but three successive cuts in beer duty – something that has been a big boost to British brewers but that helped restore confidence across the pub sector too and sent a message that politicians did actually care about beer and pubs and their value to the nation.
Of course, most notably for pubs and the sector, this has been the Parliament and the Government that has at last dealt with the abuse of the tied model by some of the large companies whose own indebtedness had led to them taking more than was fair and sustainable from licensees profits, often leaving them with little or nothing at all. The Parliament started well, with incoming Coalition Ministers agreeing to stick to the policy introduced in the dying days of the last Government, to legislate and introduce a genuine ‘free of tie option’ if the business Select Committee deemed that self regulation had failed.
Yet in a disgraceful U-turn in November 2011, yet another period of self regulation was announced, to the dismay of the Select Committee, me and organisations like Fair Pint who had begun the pressure on this issue.
We have at last seen action from Government and from Parliament in making positive changes, including legislative ones, to help and protect the Great British Pub
It seemed – and the pubcos and their lobbyists and friends, inside and outside Westminister were sure - that this issue was done and dusted for the parliament. A phoney ‘solution’ that would simply allow business as usual. Well they didn’t bank on the detailed Freedom of Information requests and the hours of analysis of the findings by me and Fair Pint founder Simon Clarke. What we unearthed – the obvious collusion between BIS and the pubcos – was devastating, BIS had cut and pasted the BBPA’s solution and slapped a logo on and presented it as their own, including even the same typos.
They could not and did not get away with this and this remains one the proudest moments in my political career. The issue was back on the political agenda and all party backbench motion was supported in the Commons. I also insisted that we rebrand the solution the ‘market rent only’ option, a much more accurate description of what we were calling for – the right for pubco licensees to pay a genuine, independently assessed commercial rent only with the right to buy all products and services from anywhere.
Campaigning stepped up and better organised, we were able to show – including by select committee style grilling of pubco and BBPA bosses – that self regulation was doing nothing – and indeed was intended to do nothing – about the balance of ‘risk and reward’ ie. the chronic overcharging on product and rent combined that was endemic in the tied pubco sector.
Clarke and I also at last debunked the ludicrous myth that the pubco tie was somehow saving pubs, through our work with and detailed analysis of CGA figures, we revealed the truth (obvious from the pub closures people see in their towns, villages and cites) that tied pubs were closing in considerably greater numbers than freehouses and that pubco pubs were faring worst of all. We had at last torn away this dishonest fig leaf, surely the last real excuse for blocking reform.
So despite a late attempt by the Tories to pull the plug, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson pressed on with a consultation (albeit in return for wasting taxpayers’ money on the nonsensical London Economics ‘research’, which didn’t involve any real research and had nothing to do with real economics!). So we were going to at last get a statutory code of practice and an adjudicator for the sector. We had snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat but I wanted and still believed we could achieve more.
I knew, having failed to be listened to once, including by party colleagues in Government, that we needed to not only match, but this time 'out-campaign', our hugely resourced opponents. So in Spring 2013 I called all the organisations together who backed much needed reform of the unfair pubco model and proposed a single, umbrella campaign.
The Fair Deal for Your Local campaign was born and together we mounted a sustained and well organised campaign of lobbying, events, protests and press releases. More and more MPs were signing up – either by backing the campaign online or by signing my early day motion, EDM 57, which soon became the most signed of the session. The Federation of Small Businesses, staunch supporters of the campaign, agreed to commission a major piece of research and it showed that not only would a market rent only option have a positive effect on pub businesses, but also that it would benefit the economy to the tune of £78m.
We had snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat but I wanted and still believed we could achieve more
So crucially we now had credible research that showed the positive effects of reform – to add to the reams of evidence of the disastrous effect on licensee earnings, commissioned by both CAMRA and the Select Committee previously. Suddenly the ‘unforeseen consequences’ mantra of a conflicted and compromised sector didn’t provide good enough reason not to act.
Yet despite our best efforts – and a clear majority of backbenchers in the Commons – we still couldn’t persuade the Chancellor and Prime Minister to do the obvious and right thing and to include the market rent only option. They were listening not to reason or their backbenchers but to their pubco friends and allies, the ‘beerage’ of yesteryear all over again.
So we had to do it the hard way, we had to beat them. So in just a couple of weeks as the House of Commons returned in October last year after the party conferences, we managed to launch the most concerted lobbying campaign of MPs in Parliament in my 10 years as an MP, coordinated by me and my office and Fair Deal Steering Group members George Scott, Gareth Epps and Adrian Yalland; emails from thousands of CAMRA members and licensees all over the country; and the most concerted lobbying campaign of MPs on social media that we have ever seen in this country, one coordinated not by well paid agencies, but by volunteer licensees from Licensees Supporting Licensees and Fair Pint.
So together we beat the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the BBPA and the British establishment and won a sensational and historic House of Commons victory on 18 November 2014 - the only defeat on legislation suffered by the Government in the whole five years - and it was about pubs and people power! The Market Rent Only option became the law of the land in the dying days of the Parliament, on 26 March 2015, and I toasted Mulholland’s Law – with a superb Yorkshire bitter brewed by Briscoe’s of Otley – with fellow campaigners in the Strangers’ Bar of the House of Commons!
The work of Fair Deal for your Local is not yet done, as we still have the consultation on the Statutory Code; we know the pubcos and their political friends will continue to try and create loopholes, water it down and repeat the mess of the Beer Orders – and the Save the Pub Group will play a lead role in stopping this. Yet equally, as I have made clear, I and we will work with all sustainable companies that can and will embrace change and I have already have very positive meetings with Heineken, Greene King and Marston’s and I intend now that with the new legislation on the way, all that have a positive role in the sector going forward can all now work together for other positive change we all agree on.
As I campaign for my re-election, which incidentally involves visiting many locals pubs, as any good political campaign should, I can reflect on a positive five years.
So I am proud of the success of the Save the Pub Group this Parliament. As a Liberal Democrat I also proud that these positive changes have only happened thanks to the Liberal Democrat presence in Government and the lead the party has taken on campaigning for change. I am extremely grateful to both Vince Cable and to Jo Swinson for their courage in standing up to George Osborne and David Cameron and insisting on us having a code.
The small but influential group of Conservative MPs who opposed both pubco reform also continued block simple planning reform. Yet at the same time the role of fantastic Conservative pro-pub MPs like Brian Binley, who is alas stepping down, and Charlotte Leslie and Caroline Noakes – and all who had the courage to vote for NC2 – has been crucial and I look forward to working with them and with Labour Pub Champion Grahame Morris and Green Pub Champion Caroline Lucas.
It was only the threat of another Commons defeat by a cross-party Save the Pub campaign to end permitted development rights for pubs that led to the limited reform of protection for Assets of Community Value, so whilst not quite the victory we wanted, nevertheless the Save the Pub Group ended the Parliament with yet another victory, strengthening ACV status for pubs.
We need to go further and I am delighted that the Liberal Democrat manifesto – as a result of the motion to York conference proposed by me and Gareth Epps - includes the simple but essential measure to end all permitted development rights on pubs, to give all communities a say over all pub conversions and demolitions. In the meantime, however, I and Otley Pub club have taken ministers advice and we have indeed listed all the valued pubs in our town – which is all of them – and thanks to Leeds City Council for agreeing to this! An example for others to follow, but no excuse still for not changing the planning system to stop ‘predatory purchasing’ altogether.
So as I campaign for my re-election, which incidentally involves visiting many locals pubs, as any good political campaign should, I can reflect on a positive five years. Action not warm words that we had for too long from politicians of all colours. It is easy to say how important the pub is to community and country; it has always been harder getting ministers to do anything about it. So now they have, sometimes willingly, sometimes having to be forced to but on each and every occasion the Save the Pub Group has had a key role.
The Save the Pub Group has had more campaigning success than any other other All Party Group in the parliament just gone; I am proud of that but we want more. We want an end to indefensible permitted development rights and a planning system that gives communities a say over conversions of theatres and laundrettes, but not pubs.
We also want now, after the help that brewers have rightly review through the cut in beer duty, some tax changes to specifically help pubs as opposed to beer (which is also sold in supermarkets), and tax changes to recognise the important community role that pubs play. We also want to see change to the unfair way business rates are calculated for pubs, that is out of date and unjustifiable in the current climate.
So it’s been a good five years of change for pubs and for publicans but there is much more to do. So let’s make this next five years a great one – and the Save the Pub Group will continue to lead the charge for that in Parliament.
Greg Mulholland has been Chair of the Parliamentary Save the Pub Group since 2009 and a CAMRA Top 40 campaigner of all time and a well known champion of beer and pub issues