Opinion

Pete Brown: Not every failing pub is the fault of 'evil pubcos'

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Pete Brown: Not every failing pub is the fault of 'evil pubcos'

Related tags: Pub, Cask ale

Offering an ‘unbiased view’ can sometimes make those on each side of the debate assume you favour the opposition. Pete Brown tells us more.

Everybody hates the BBC. During any big political event — such as, ooh, let’s say a referendum — the one thing we all agree on is that the BBC is biased. The problem is, we can’t quite agree on whether the BBC is blatantly left wing or rabidly right wing.

I was in a similar position years ago with the Cask Report. Some of the big regional cask brewers felt I’d given too much space to microbrewers, while the microbrewers felt the same report placed too much emphasis on the role of the big regionals.

I believe that if you’re in this position — that each side in an argument believes you’re on the other side — it probably means you have, in fact, got the balance right.

Debate

So in that spirit, I’ve decided to write a column likely to anger both sides in the ongoing battle between big pubcos and the tenants and lessees who are unhappy with them.

I broadly agree with the campaigners that in many instances, pubcos behave as if they don’t actually like pubs. The actions of large pub companies frequently suggest that a pub will only remain a pub until they can make more money by selling it to Tesco or redeveloping it as flats.

I appreciate that maximising shareholder value is the primary aim of any big business, but pubs are more than ‘sites’, their punters more than ‘guests,’ and the staff more than ‘colleagues,’ (a term that’s become patronising as big business has debased it.) Too often, the soft values that are harder to measure than the bottom line are completely ignored.

Unviable

So let’s p*** off the pubcos first.

My main beef at the moment is their use of the word “unviable”. If you’re no longer interested in having a pub in your estate, fine. But you lose all respect when you say that just because the pub doesn’t fit with your plans, it has no future as a pub at all. Pub after pub after pub has prospered and thrived after being declared “unviable” and then been rescued by people who give a damn.

Every single time this happens, the pubcos look, at best, inept and, at worst, dishonest. If you want to close a pub, have the balls and the respect for others to say, “look, we just don’t want it,” rather than pretending it has no future as a going concern.

Anti-pubco

And now, because I seem to be uncomfortable with a happy, peaceful life, I need to address an equally irritating tic among the anti-pubco campaigners. Here goes:

Not every pub that fails, not every person that loses their livelihood, is the fault of evil practices among the pubcos. Sometimes, pubs close because the people running them are not very good at their job.

I agree that the current tied model hinders and even cripples pubs in some circumstances, and I agree that pubcos are sometimes guilty of outrageous behaviour to their so-called ‘business partners’. But it’s simplistic and wilfully naïve to claim that this is the main or only factor in every single pub closure.

Skills

People often ask me if I’ve ever thought of running a pub and I always say no because I don’t have all the skills to succeed. Sure I’d get a great range of beers in and do some decent food, and I’d probably promote the place well. But I’d be terrible at hiring and firing people, the finances would be shambolic and I’d consistently screw up the red tape. I’d probably drive the business into the ground over cash flow issues within six months, with or without a pubco lease.

Some people who take on pubs are going to fail because they don’t have all the skills, or even because they’re unlucky. There’s no shame in it. Businesses fail frequently in every single sector of the economy. It’s stupid to suggest that this never happens in pubs, where the range of skills required is so vast. Not every pub is saveable and not every pub should be saved. As long as campaigners get hysterical with anyone who dares to say this, they won’t be taken entirely seriously.

Both my irritations come from the same place: a frustration with people not speaking plainly or reasonably, one side arguing perfectly good pubs are unviable, the other saying every pub would be fine if it was free of tie. Acknowledge the truth, show some common sense, and we might start listening more closely to what you have to say.

Related topics: Beer

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