The MP led the way in challenging the Government to reform the business rates system last month, in a Westminster Hall debate. Many St Albans’ publicans were hit with a hike in rates in 2017 and have told MA they feel penalised.
She learned of her constituents’ concerns on a pub trail (“I’d say that rather than a pub crawl, since I wasn’t drinking at any of them!”).
“They particularly wanted me to see the pubs that were in my main high street/shopping area.
“In St Albans, we have very much a heritage community, it is a cathedral, pilgrimage city and lots of pubs that are very old, medieval, in listed buildings and so on and so forth.
“That presents its own particular challenges for businesses anyway – many of them are small premises without parking [bays]. In today's changing scenario, in terms of how people drink and eat out, they don't have the opportunity to grow their business much more than literally places where you would drink and have a snack.
“They are not turning themselves into big gastropubs and they can't expand.
“These pubs are very interesting to go and walk around them. I walked around 10 and they were explaining to me the number of extra pints they would have to sell just to try and pay the extra business rates.”
The publicans of her city – several of whom have united against the rates system in a group Save St Albans Pubs – are a mix of different types of tenancy models.
St Albans’ property values make things tricky for publicans, Main said.
“We have an average house price of over £600,000 so we are talking very, very expensive real estate and these pubs are nestling in domestic streets and old cobbled conservation areas.
“The difficulty they have got trying to make a business – especially if they are not the owners of these pubs – is that it is far easier and far more lucrative if the trade has got too hard for it to make work as a business is to sell it off for housing.
“We are losing a lot of pubs in St Albans, because they are struggling to keep their heads above water.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a cut of 33% in rates for businesses with a rateable value of under £51,000 in his Autumn Budget.
However, this reduction was not applicable to many pubs in St Albans.
Heritage at risk
There are fears some pubs would eventually be converted into residential use.
“If they are turned back into private dwellings, listed Georgian building or beautiful oak-framed buildings, it is easy to see how with house values as they are, that this is a very attractive prospect.
“We cannot lose that heritage, we cannot lose some of the famous pubs, situated in some of the most historic and prettiest parts of my city, or indeed any other city.”
Having seen the impact for herself, Main and a group of publicans met with the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury Robert Jenrick a couple of weeks ago.
They explained there had been disparity in the city, with pubs a stone's throw away from one another being given vastly different valuations.
“I have got some streets where I have several pubs on one street – on one of the historic conservation areas will have had a massive hike in business rates – several hundred percent,” the MP said.
“Three or four doors down, another pub will have actually had a business rate cut because it is not so well run, it hasn't had the same investment, and it hasn't got the same trading formula that the Government is using.
“That cannot be right, that two pubs that are very similar within a few hundred yards of each other are finding themselves in very different positions in their ability to trade fairly and make a business from.”
Model does not work
The Government intended to help pubs but while some received a relief others were adversely affected, she said.
“They needed to know the Chancellor’s aim to help pubs was very welcome but the one-size-fits-all model does not work in areas like mine and other areas that might have similar profile to us.”
Main believes there must be other areas that fit a similar pattern to St Albans.
“They could well be places like Cheltenham or Bath or Harrogate with a similar demographic to St Albans, maybe heritage buildings and a quite expensive property market.
Within an hour of the pub trail, the group had walked around 10 pubs, a route she has invited Government ministers on.
Difficult trading conditions
“It is so easy to find a pub in St Albans but it is so difficult to make those pubs work, they have the sheer volume of numbers, but also the way their premises are laid out.
“One pub is tiny, only 1,000sq ft, which is smaller than many people's houses or even some flats. How you can sell enough beer to make up for an increase in your business rates of tens of thousands of pounds – it just isn't possible.
“I know they did not particularly want to help the London pubs but there are areas outside that have a London-type profile, and those ones have been very disadvantaged by this new system.”
Some pubs have to close for periods of time as conservation officers debate alterations, including the Fighting Cocks which is said to be the oldest pub in the country and the historic Boot pub.
The Boot was closed for nine months while authorities debated the extent of the listed kitchens.
“These are difficult pubs to even get organised for modern-day living,” Main added.
These pubs are among those adversely affected by rates and “are doing their damnedest to maintain these historic buildings, as part of the community heritage that we all enjoy”, the MP said.
She added: “The idea was to help, not to hinder anybody.”
“It takes a long time to appeal – I am told it has taken up to three years to appeal. Most businesses will have gone under after three years of adverse trading conditions.”