Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Asset stripping through neglect

Passing this closed pub in Southport recently, the Hoghton Arms, I thought the obvious neglect gave one compelling reason why pubs are closing. Letters are missing from the name and the paintwork below the windows hasn't been touched for years. If I were looking for a pub to run, I'd just walk past this one. It wouldn't surprise me if planning permission was sought to develop the site.

Two views of the same corner on Google street view.
Slightly further away it still shows the London.
Move closer and the new houses magically appear.
I've seen this happen before. On my last visit to the London Hotel in Southport, the place had clearly not been decorated since long before the smoking ban as the ceiling was still heavily stained with nicotine, several of the light bulbs were broken and the whole place was dingy and unwelcoming. Unsurprisingly, there were only about three or four people in what was a large street corner people in a residential area, even though there wasn't another pub or bar nearby.

I e-mailed the owning company and asked about the rumour that the pub was to be closed down. I initially received nothing back but after a couple of reminders was sent a very guarded reply asking what my interest was: was I interested in buying the pub? I replied no, I was just a customer concerned about its future. I received no further response. Shortly afterwards came the inevitable announcement that the pub was unviable, although unsurprisingly they didn't mention that they had run it into the ground. A group of new houses now sit on the site.

Most pub companies are property companies and have no vested interest in maintaining their pubs, especially when they can get the equivalent of a massive lottery win by selling the land for redevelopment. Breweries were more likely to maintain their estates of pubs because they were outlets for their core product, beer, but as is well known such brewery estates are uncommon nowadays.

Even many apparently successful traditional pubs are, behind the scenes, struggling under inequitable tenancy agreements that require licensees to take responsibility for often quite major maintenance costs, as well as overcharging for the products on sale: licensees have told me about 50% to 100% mark-ups on beer as compared to the open market. Many pubs would be much more successful if they weren't tied and could buy their supplies where they wanted. Although I'm a Leftie, my understanding is that under capitalism competition is supposed be good for the economy by bringing prices down to benefit all of us - well, that's the theory we're fed. The tie ensures that pubco-owned pubs are denied even that dubious benefit.

Nothing is likely to be done because our rulers are quite happy if pubs close and we all stay at home, but people cannot be bullied into such behaviour against their will. The rise of new micropubs and bars, not tied to any company, are stepping into the breach, or even opening in areas that weren't previously served by any drinking establishments. For example, the Hillside area of Southport had no licensed premises at all until three years ago: now there are two new bars and a micropub, with two of them serving real ale (the Grasshopper and the Pines).

The down side is that we continue to lose irreplaceable traditional pubs that, if the owners had the will, could remain open. The success of various community pubs which had previously been closed by pubcos as unviable simply shows that the pubco business model is itself the problem.

I do know there are other factors in pub closures, such as excessive tax, unfair business rates, changes in how people socialise, and so on, but I have seen pubs allowed to deteriorate, often (in my opinion) quite deliberately.


  1. Hi Nev, it’s a case of be careful what you wish for.

    I am referring of course to the Beer Orders which the government used to break the stranglehold held by the former “Big Six” brewers, on the UK pub market. A cap of 2,000 pubs was placed on the number of outlets a brewery could own, which resulted in the likes of Bass, Whitbread and Watney’s getting out of brewing altogether. Others sold off the majority of their pubs.

    This eventually resulted in the rise of today’s Pub Co’s which, as you rightly point out, are nothing more than property companies, with no real interest in the licensed trade or indeed the future of the nation’s pub-stock and the hapless individuals indentured to them.

    CAMRA welcomed the Beer Order at the time, but with hindsight, perhaps the likes of Allied, Bass, Courage et al, weren’t as bad as they were painted. Better the devil you know – eh?

    1. I agree almost completely. CAMRA thought we'd end up with loads of free houses able to choose which beers they could stock: they were wrong, of course. However, the the blame for introducing the Beer Orders lies with the government of the day, not CAMRA.

      I remember wondering at the time what would happen to all the pubs, as I wasn't convinced by the rosy future that was predicted. Having said that, I didn't anticipate what did occur.

      However, I'm not sure about 'better the devil you know' because many of these great micro-breweries that we now have wouldn't exist because they'd have had far fewer places to sell their beers.

      So you could say 'swings and roundabouts' or - preferably - with future planning, try harder to anticipate the unintended consequences.

  2. It's all part of the plan to reduce the power of the working man (or even the non-working man). I see it as a composite - curtail union power, gentrify pubs into wine bars etc, create service industies that women can do to replace male physical power, de-skill all those in work, robotise jobs as far as possible, do away with jobs by making as much as possible to be done by customers themselves, launch everything onto the internet etc. Simples - working man totally disempowered and unable to find solidarity.

  3. Also, Capitalist developers win all round


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