Page last updated at 23:17 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

Villages suffer as pubs disappear

By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Holton, Suffolk

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The Lord Nelson pub in Holton, in Suffolk, is plastered in "for sale" signs.

The paint is peeling from the white brickwork, and the portrait of the Admiral on the sign is fading away.

There used to be two pubs in Holton, a village of around 1,100 people. The first closed four years ago, and the Lord Nelson shut down just a few months ago.

You can't run a pub on just Friday nights and Sunday lunches
Paul Shenton, former landlord, Lord Nelson pub

"It's such a shame. The village is stagnant now," says Bobby Manning, once a regular. "If you walk through that road half a dozen times I don't think you'll see anybody."

Mike Game, a local builder in his 50s, echoes the sentiment. "I first went in that pub when I was three years old," he says. "I don't even like to drive past it now".

Keenly felt

The Lord Nelson
The Lord Nelson in rural Suffolk is unlikely to re-open.

The loss of the Nelson is keenly felt by those who drank, ate and shared local gossip there. But it goes beyond that.

"It was a post office as well," adds Tony Rust, a civil engineer from Newcastle who moved here fifteen years ago.

"It was there for the elderly to get their pensions and other things Post Offices do. It was also somewhere where they could sit down and have a cup of coffee. But now they've lost that facility as well."

Driving around the winding lanes of Suffolk you see a lot of pubs that have gone under.

On the way to Holton, I passed two that were boarded up and another two that were advertising for new managers.

Declining business

The former landlord at the Lord Nelson, Paul Shenton, says it's no surprise that others are struggling too.

Paul Shenton
Paul Shenton found fewer and fewer people coming into his pub

"It was the hub of the community, but towards the end it became hard work for very little return," he said.

"The best we did was 160 beer barrels per annum, but towards the end it was 80.

"When we started, 15 years ago, there was no food. By the end it was 45% of turnover. We were in the Good Beer Guide throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and in the Good Food Guide. But it wasn't enough."

"The old boys who came in and used the pub died off, one by one, and no-one replaced them. On weeknights we were twiddling our thumbs until nine or ten o'clock. You can't run a pub on just Friday nights and Sunday lunches."

Mr Shenton puts it down to a cultural and economic shift: villagers are now happy to stay at home watching DVDs and enjoying cheap drink from the supermarket.

Closing fast

Last month, the Commons all-party beer group suggested countering this by reducing taxes on draught beer - at present a third of the price - or introducing a minimum price for alcohol, to stop supermarkets selling it as a loss-leader.

It said pubs were closing at an "astonishing" rate of 36 a week.

Others put the blame on the pub operating companies, for forcing their tenant-landlords to buy beer exclusively from them - at allegedly inflated prices. A select committee inquiry into this began last week.

"The government needs to wake up to the importance of the pub," says Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland.

"Instead of regarding them as businesses which can go to the wall we need to look at changing planning law to enshrine the pub.

"Whenever a pub is proposed to go to a different use, be closed or demolished, the local community needs to be consulted.

"At the end of the day, who owns the pub? Legally it's the pub operating company or the landlord. But morally, surely, a community, a village owns a pub that's been there for hundreds of years."

Up for sale

The Lord Nelson was owned by Admiral Taverns, a company that owns 2,400 pubs in England and Wales - and recently put 100 up for sale.

In a statement, it said the Nelson was "unviable" but insisted that village pubs have a rosy future.

"Traditional rural pubs that are at the heart of their communities, with good, motivated licensees satisfying their customers' needs, will not only survive, but thrive," it said.

Others are less sanguine.

Hamish Stoddart is co-founder of Peach Pubs, a small company that turns around rundown pubs.

"We tend to look for slightly bigger pubs where you can have a team of chefs.

"The smaller ones need to be good enough to know 1,000 people who will use them every month.

"I suspect many will go - and I'd actually like to see that because the difficult thing is people trying to live their dreams by running their own pubs, and a lot get sucked into running an uneconomic pub in the wrong place."

This, it seems, is what happened to Paul Shenton.

'I was very proud when I became a publican. It's all I ever wanted to do," he says. "But now I would not go back into the business."

This report comes from Broadcasting House, Radio 4's alternative take on the week's news on Sundays at 0900 GMT or download the podcast here.

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