Simon English: Vampire pubs cross as little man wins rare victory

Midweek View: Lives were ruined. In the worst cases, publicans ended up sick with worry and later destitute

For more than a few Britons, the idea of running your own pub is a lifelong dream. You'd have the place just the way you always imagined your ideal boozer would be. Serve only the beer of which you yourself approve. Absolutely no Dexy's Midnight Runners on the juke box. And no bicyclists either – not in my gaff.

You'd have an ever-wider circle of mates around to marvel at your own little castle while you held court behind the bar, dispensing wisdom and the odd free drink.

For many, the reality of running a pub, especially as a freelance landlord of a property owned by a hugely powerful pub company, turned into an utter nightmare.

Pubs in miserable places that had eaten the soul out of numerous ambitious entrepreneurs would be rented out at absurd rates by pubcos with few scruples.

Retired couples would bet their pensions, or their redundancy pay-offs, on hopes of turning around a struggling venue that more experienced landlords would run a million miles from. No warnings were given about how tough the task ahead might be.

Complex contracts that even industry insiders found hard to follow would be signed in haste and regretted at length. The beer tie – the obligation to buy beer from the pub company – squeezed margins, and made it near impossible to compete with the pub down the road that operated free of the tie.

And most of the beer you had to purchase sucked anyway.

Lives were ruined. In the worst cases, the publicans ended up sick with worry and overwork and later destitute. The pubcos sighed as if they cared, and signed up a new victim.

Today into this miserable picture arrived a rare glimmer of hope.

After months of fighting from concerned MPs and publicans who could take it no more, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, said he wanted a statutory code to oversee these pubcos and a new watchdog with the power to investigate allegations of misbehaviour and issue fines.

As a sign of what good news this is, the British Beer & Pub Association – the lobby group for the big players – said it was "disappointed" by the moves and made the predictable moan about "unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy".

(Their own complex rules were just good business, of course; for them, anyway.)

In truth, the industry had years and many warnings to reform itself, to stop doing its best impression of a bloodsucking vampire.

The publican and Fair Pint campaigner Simon Clarke put it like this: "For far too long, tied pub tenants have been abused by big pub-owning companies. Many have lost their livelihoods, savings and have lived in fear of losing their home. This announcement comes after many years of highlighting this unfairness."

For many individuals, it is more than a mere pity it took so long. I got to know a guy a few years ago who had packed in a successful, lucrative trade in the music industry to pump his considerable fortune into running what he thought was a lovely Sussex pub. Three years later, he was divorced and living in a council flat. He hadn't seen his son for months.

Maybe he was a bad businessman, but the point is that the pubco didn't care either way – it got its pound of flesh whether he succeeded or failed.

Mr Cable said: "There is some real hardship in the pubs sector, with many pubs going to the wall as publicans struggling to survive on tiny margins. Some of this is due to pubcos exploiting and squeezing their publicans by unfair practices and a focus on short-term profits. Four select committee reviews since 2004 have highlighted these problems.

"Last year, we gave the pubcos one last chance to change their behaviour, but it is clear that the self-regulatory approach was not enough, and in October I wrote to the industry to seek their views. A change in the law is now needed to shift behaviour."

Back at the BBPA, they are carping that "self-regulation should have been given a proper chance to work" and pleading for the new watchdog to operate with a "light touch" to "protect consumers" from the brunt of extra costs.

There are lots of reasons why a pint of beer is an increasingly expensive thing. None of them are to do with powerful pub companies not being allowed to shove around near powerless landlords.

A rare result for the little man, then. You could drink to that.

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