MPs demand urgent action to save the pub as 169 go under

THERE was a Commons call for urgent action yesterday as MPs demanded moves to “Save the Great British Pub”, after alarming figures revealed 169 had been lost across the region in just four years.

Five government ministers were grilled on why more and more pubs are being forced out of business, in a growing crisis many are comparing to the closure of local post offices.

Big hikes in alcohol tax are blamed for the closures, although cut-price drink in supermarkets, extra costs to tackle binge drinking, greedy Pub companies and the smoking ban are also pinpointed.

A glimmer of hope was offered by ministers. Pubs could enjoy lower business rates if they can prove they are “centres of the community”, under proposals set out yesterday.

And planning rules could be toughened to prevent struggling pubs being easily bulldozed for housing estates or other changes of use.

But ministers denied hikes in tax were responsible for an alarming surge in Pub closures.

MPs released detailed figures revealing the Parliamentary constituencies of the 4,271 pubs that have closed since the general election of 2005, at a rate of 22 every week.

The hardest-hit seat is Liverpool Riverside, which includes the city centre. It has lost 48 pubs and bars in four years.

Also suffering are Birkenhead (down 20), Liverpool Garston (down 14), and Liverpool Walton (down 10).

Ian Garnon, regional director of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), said ministers like Wallasey MP Angela Eagle, who was at yesterday’s summit, should be ashamed.

He added: “Angela Eagle should show an interest, being their MP – there’s just no pubs.

“If a Pub closes, a family’s lost its home, plus all the people who work there have lost their jobs.

“We try to support the Pub as the hub of the community. That’s where people go to mingle and have a laugh. It’s the heart of the community and that’s what we’re going to lose – a British institution.” Wallasey has lost six pubs in four years.

Three constituencies have bucked the trend since 2005. Wirral West has gained five pubs, while Crosby has seen three more open. West Lancashire is up one, according to the research.

The crisis summit was organised by the all-party Parliamentary beer group, which warned ministers faced a “race against time” to save the Pub.

Anger centred on Chancellor Alistair Darling’s plans for an “escalator tax” on alcohol. That would see duty rise by 2% above the rate of inflation for the next four years, starting next month.

The hikes follow a 9% increase in duty in last year’s Budget and a rise in December to offset the VAT cut on all other products – which itself slapped three pence on a pint of beer.

Wirral South MP Ben Chapman was at the summit. He said: “To add an extra 3p on a pint of beer is, in my view, completely barmy.

“Beer sales in pubs are at their lowest since the 1930s, with five pubs closing everyday. The recent closure of the Great Eastern Pub in New Ferry, a historic landmark dating from 1862 is but one example.”

Campaigners have warned 40,000 jobs could be wiped out if the closures continue at the current rate, on top of 40,000 thought to have already gone.

Licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe attempted to head off criticism by announcing that Pub landlords struggling to get credit could apply for emergency loans of up to £1m, after they were initially excluded from the help for small firms.

Mr Garnon added: “The amount of jobs going in pubs is just ridiculous.

“The present economic climate has forced lots of pubs to go out of business. But people always want to run pubs – as five or six close another one opens.”

The landlord's view: Government must help - our beer is amongst the most taxed in Europe

JOHN O’DOWD, who has managed the Lion Tavern, in Liverpool, for seven years, said: “Personally, I think the Government does have a part to play. Our beer’s the second most taxed in Europe. Publicans already have a high break-even point, so it gets even harder.

“In Liverpool city centre, we’re holding up. It’s the community pubs that have got the biggest hit in terms of people staying at home.

“People are staying in to drink and eat – or they go to the gym, demographic changes like that.

“It’s cheaper to drink at home. And, if you’ve just spent loads of money on a brand new TV, you’ll probably stay in to watch it.

“But, in the city centre, we’re slightly ahead of where we were last year in terms of sales, but it’s only marginal.

“Sales aren’t growing as fast as they were a couple of years ago.

“But real ale is a growth sector, the lagers are declining. People do appreciate an historic Pub. Bars all over the world tend to look the same, but, if you’re in an old Pub, there’s an atmosphere and you can see all the skills of tile making and wood carving.”

Caroline Heywood-Jones, the manager of Formby’s Railway Pub, said: “Business has gone down – we’ve had to put special offers on. But there’s money still going through my till.

“We do rely on special offers and gimmicks.

“You can’t just rely on doing nothing.

“Every Pub or chain will have some deal on some time through the week, just to get by.

“We had the best Christmas we’ve ever had. Sometimes we can be rammed, then other times it’s absolutely dead.

“I’m quite happy with it, but, for some people, they might need government help.”

George Anderson, manager of the Lakeside Inn, in Southport, said: “The important thing is to keep the status quo and keep things as they are.

“If you go chasing prices, you'll only end up worse off if people haven't got the money.

“Places putting their prices up have lost lots of trade, as people think they're trying to take them for a ride.

“The thing is really just to try and ride it out.”