With its gleaming brasses, welcoming fire and foaming ales, the country pub is an integral part of life in rural Britain.
With its gleaming brasses, welcoming fire and foaming ales, the country pub is an integral part of life in rural Britain. But giant pub companies are calling time on the village local, campaigners alleged yesterday, claiming it was falling prey to the soaring demand for conversion into lucrative housing projects.
High property prices have encouraged companies to get rid of low-earning community pubs and switch to spending millions on fashionable, high-volume, city-centre bars, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra).
Rural pubs were closing at the rate of 20 a month, despite lobbying of local authorities to keep them open, figures released yesterday showed. Many of those were in desirable village locations where a large converted pub could be sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, the group said.
The study by Camra, to mark the start of national pubs week, highlighted fears that some of the country's unique pubs could disappear.
Its research also showed that more than one in four people never visited the pub, with the highest proportion of abstainers in London (39 per cent). The figure compared with the North-west region, where 45 per cent of people said they went to the pub more than once a week.
Camra said it wanted a wide-ranging investigation by the Office of Fair Trading into the activities of the pub companies and new controls on preventing closures.
Specialist companies, such as Pubmaster and Punch Taverns with portfolios of thousands of pubs, have become more powerful since a 1989 law that loosened the brewers' hold over the pub sector. One of the big players, Six Continents, formerly Bass, which has more than 2,000 pubs and bars including the All Bar One and O'Neill's chains, is at the centre of a fierce takeover battle.
By failing to invest in some pubs, the owners let customers drift away and they are then able to show the planning authorities that the businesses are not going concerns and should close, Camra claims.
Campaigners said that pubs had been sold if a particular company had monopoly control over an area. Closing a pub cuts costs without losing customers, according to Camra.
Mike Benner, Camra's head of campaigns, said: "A lot of these village pubs are profitable but in a big, big pub chain they don't make the grade that is expected.
"The more marginal pubs, that tend to be rural pubs and back street boozers, either get sold on or closed. If they keep changing hands there's no investment going in and these days people expect certain standards when they go in."
Some regulars are fighting back. In Cumbria, the mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington has joined other locals to buy their village pub after hearing rumours of a buy-up by one of the big chains.
More than 100 regulars have put their names down for a share of The Old Crown, the last of five village pubs at Hesket Newmarket. They will learn if they have saved it in April.
And John Pascoe, who took over as landlord of The Swan, in Little Totham, Essex, in 1996 after closure rumours, sees his pub named today as Camra's national pub of the year.
Since the closure of the primary school and the village shop, it is one of the few meeting points in the village. Mr Pascoe, 57, and his wife, Valerie, have turned it into a thriving business but have had to hold out against attempts from big business to take it over. "You can certainly make a success of a village pub but your whole heart has to be in it," he said.
"I blame the pub companies. I am being approached at least twice a week to sell my pub. Some of it is pushy. Many, many pubs are in my situation. If the buyers keep approaching, eventually the landlord will sell."
To make the pub a focal point of the community, the couple have teamed up with the church to hold pancake suppers and organise markets where farmers sell their produce.
Camra is also encouraging pubs to promote themselves better. Rural pubs were particularly hard hit by the drink- drive laws and Camra said landlords could help themselves with schemes such as offering drivers free soft drinks.
Other pubs have introduced community services such as hairdressing, post office facilities and a fish and chip shop to put themselves at the heart of the community.
Brewer calls time on centuries of tradition
An old photograph of a previous landlord in the bar at the Farmer's Boy provided proof that the 17th-century pub had been at the centre of the community for decades.
But the pub has been closed since October of last year, with the last landlord now unemployed and waiting to be rehoused, and the owner, Greene King, which has 1,600 pubs, looking to convert the pub into housing.
Fred Robinson, 59, ran the pub for nearly five years but during that time it was never refurbished. The takings covered the costs but it was never a cash cow. Mr Robinson maintains that the pub, in the village of Langley, Hertfordshire, could have made money if the company had invested in it while he was there. The grade II listed building has dampness problems and now looks its 350 years of age. Mr Robinson said: "It's run down now and if you don't like the look of a pub from the outside, you're not going to look at the inside.
"Business rates were expensive because of the price of the properties around here.
"It will be a loss to the community. There's only one other place around here, and that's not really a pub but one of those Harvesters."
Clive Pettitt, of Greene King, said the pub had a history of being difficult to run. "We will always give a pub a fair chance but at some point we have to say it's very difficult to continue with it."
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