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Should the British pub get a government sub?

Drinking a pint
Beer sales threatened?

With pubs across Britain shutting down at an alarming rate, the great British pub in danger of losing its place in the hub of village life, says Gillian Hargreaves.

According to the British Beer and Pub Association, there were 1400 pub closures last year, compared to 200 the year before. That works out at about 27 a week.

Community pubs - essentially "the local" - are being particularly badly hit. In Scotland the situation is less acute, but in England and Wales more and more pubs are facing last orders.

The cost of supermarket alcohol - making it cheaper to drink at home - and the smoking ban and rising costs of food are cited as some of the reasons for staying away or staying in.

'Parish asset'

Reach, a village in Cambridgeshire, used to have a shop, a primary school and a post office.

We provide a reason for people to be in the village rather than going to work elsewhere
Frank Feehan, pub landlord

But when the pub was under threat of closure back in 1999, 49 villagers clubbed together to buy it, some contributing as little as 250.

It is now a parish asset, and cannot be sold or turned into a private house.

Bryan Pearson, the chairman of the consortium which bought the pub, says: "If we hadn't got a pub this place would become a dormitory. We have a village hall but that is very much for set piece events at certain times, but a community needs somewhere where it can just bounce ideas off itself and be at peace with itself."

Frank Feehan, the landlord, points out that as a successful pub, Dykes End is rapidly becoming a big employer in the village.

"The main thing we provide in this village is employment - I employ three full-time staff and probably half a dozen part-time staff, training men to work in our micro brewery. We provide a reason for people to be in the village rather than going to work elsewhere."

pub interior
Subsidies could reward pubs which contribute to village life
And he points out that while the government is trying to reduce the amount we drink, pubs are a part of the British way of life.

"This government and other governments say they want to introduce a cafe culture into this country. We already have a kind of cafe culture, but it's a pub culture. It doesn't mean binge drinking and it doesn't mean over drinking, it means coming to a place like this and enjoying yourself, having a locally-brewed pint and having a good time."

Community life

We want the government to recognise the value of pubs and the work they do in the community
Janet Dean, Labour MP

A group of politicians, the magnificently named All Party Parliamentary Beer Group, have just finished a two-year inquiry into the state of the pub.

They plan to make recommendations about what the government could - or should - do to help.

The MP for the Midlands' brewing town of Burton-on-Trent - and author of the group's report - might well turn out to be the pub trade's Good Samaritan.

Janet Dean has spent two years trying to find out why pubs are going under, and if the government could - or should - help. She wants some form of state intervention for pubs that can show they contribute to the life of a village or town.

"We want the government to recognise the value of pubs and the work they do in the community.

"In some instances we have heard of post offices being established in pubs, toilets being used as public toilets and community involvement with football teams. The government could recognise this and other aspects with some form of rating relief."

Government pressure

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Subsidies may not go down well with the government. Chancellor Alistair Darling put four pence on a pint in the last budget, with the expectation that duty would rise year on year. Something Ms Dean, a Labour MP, wants scrapped.

"Some of us are concerned about the alcohol escalator in the budget. I can understand why he put duty up - as he was looking at supermarket prices and it's supermarket prices that have been maintained, if not reduced, over the last 10 years - whereas cheap supermarket prices has put pressure on pubs," she says.

The pub industry itself is also urging the government to give the industry tax breaks.

The British Brewing and Pub Association has conducted a survey, asking voters about tax on beer. Eighty-two percent said the inflation increase was unfair on sensible drinkers, and 77% said it will threaten pubs.

"The indications from the polling are quite clear, the public believe pubs are under threat. They think higher taxes will increase that threat - and not tackle the problems of binge drinking, which we all want to try and resolve," says Rob Haywood of the BBPA.

He claims that by 2012 a pint of beer in London will cost 6.50 a pint, if the alcohol escalator is retained.

But the government told BBC One's Politics Show where pubs provide evidence of their importance to community life, they may get help to stay open. And Parliament plans to investigate the role of the pub companies.

The future of the great British pub, it seems, is now on politicians' minds.


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