Save our Pubs: Why Chancellor Rishi Sunak must still act to help these centres of our communities survive

Reading George Blake’s fine Scottish novel, The Shipbuilders, about the Clyde shipyards, reminded me of the pubs on its shore.

Save our Pubs: Why Chancellor Rishi Sunak must still act to help these centres of our communities survive
Fiddler's Arms pub, Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of Byronv2

The book is set in the 1930s, predating my first entry into licensed premises, but I’m still of an age to remember pubs of yore with their wooden gantrys and the smoke and smells that went with them.

I’m a fan of those great old bars where the woodwork was sometimes more akin to a work of art, even if the smoking ban’s a blessing.

Most of them are long gone and it’s hard times for those remaining. Current enforced closure may well prove permanent for many.

Despite furlough, the financial impact has been severe and as drinking patterns have changed over years, they may change again post-coronavirus.

Consumption had been moving from the on-trade of pubs to the off-trade of supermarkets before lockdown enforced it, approaching 75 per cent in the latter. Will all wander back down to the pub and will the local still be there?

I think it matters. It’s not as critical as a school or hospital but it’s still a focus for a community. Lose the pub and where do folk gather to chew the fat and where do local groups meet as community resources diminish?

Rural hostelries are already diminishing and I accept my part in that through reducing the drink-drive limit. That though was essential for public safety, even if not without consequence for the trade.

The Stein Inn, Skye. Photo courtesy of Stewart Cutler

But it’s not just those in rural parts that’ll struggle to reopen. Many in towns and cities will likewise remain permanently shut unless action’s taken. We’ve got enough empty shops on high streets, what’ll we do with empty pubs joining them? Many streets are bleak enough as it is, without yet more closures.

There’s also good reason to have alcohol taken in supervised premises. Providing oversight in behaviour can temper both the volume consumed, as well as behaviour. Folk tend to drink more when they’re liberally pouring their own and crime statistics confirm alcohol-related harm is more likely to be in domestic as opposed to licensed premises.

So that’s another reason why Rishi Sunak’s budget was a missed opportunity. Nothing was done to vary alcohol duty rates, but so much could have been done to assist the licensed trade.

Italy has cut VAT on alcohol sold in pubs and restaurants. Why not here? It would be a boon to hard-pressed licensees, maybe saving a complete collapse and yet still ensuring revenue for the state.

More importantly, there should have been a variation in the duty paid between on and off-trade. A report by the Social Market Foundation showed a modest increase on a can of beer or bottle of wine in the latter could allow for a cut in the former. There’s health and social reasons for it.

Supermarkets have made money hand over fist during the pandemic, often through alcohol. It’s time to reduce the duty in pubs and raise it in off-sales, it’s time to save our pubs.