These are tough times for that Great British institution, the local pub. As we move into 2013, Western Gazette reporter Claire Smyth finds out what publicans are doing to prevent last orders being called on their premises...
They say you do not realise how good something is until it is gone. This is certainly true of pubs in Somerset which can deprive a community of its only focal point when they close.
An average of 16 pubs close in Britain every week, according to Phil Emond, chairman of the Somerset branch of Campaign for Real Ale.
The group regularly lobbies Government in an effort to make life easier for the nation’s publicans who find themselves having to think of new ideas to keep their businesses afloat.
Mr Emond said: “It’s not to say pubs aren’t opening, there are pubs opening and reopening. Out of 20 or 30 pubs in our branch that closed last year, about ten have reopened in some disguise. So it’s not totally negative but it’s not a good balance.”
South Somerset has seen its fair share of pub closures in recent months and many villages have lost their pub completely when efforts to find someone new to take on the business fail.
Chiselborough has been without a pub since The Cat Head Inn closed suddenly during the summer. Owners Enterprise Inns have now put it up for sale and villagers have vowed to do everything they can to make sure it remains a pub.
Attempts have also been made to turn other pubs into homes, such as the Lamb Inn in Tintinhull and the Royal Oak in Stoford, near Yeovil.
Four County Inns, which owns the Royal Oak, wanted to refurbish part of the village pub into a home. But South Somerset District Council planners refused the plans on the grounds that downsizing the pub would mean the village loses a valuable amenity.
Mr Emond said: “Pubs are communities. It’s where communities go. It doesn’t matter if the community is a village or a major city or town. That is the local point for them and if that goes what have they got?”
Perhaps more worrying for communities who value their pub is when supermarkets move in. The Picketty Witch, in Ilchester Road, Yeovil, will become a Tesco Express next year, it emerged last month.
The store giant has done something similar in Portishead but planners at North Somerset Council are considering using legislation to force the company to submit a detailed planning application for the store. A spokesman for South Somerset District Council said there are no plans to do this in Yeovil.
Mr Emond said: “The only thing it has to do by law is to make an application to the council for a cash machine and lighting on the building. It won’t go to places where it will take far too much time to sort out the application, which then goes out into the local area so people get a better chance to oppose it.
“In our branch, there were four pubs in the last month that have gone to be supermarkets without any thought about it. In Scotland the law is different. Only one pub has been turned into a supermarket there because the law won’t allow it. The reason it’s happening is because the people who own pubs are making a lot of money by getting rid of them.”
He said publicans face a number of different challenges today, including rising rents from the brewers who own the building, high Government taxes and competition from supermarkets whose cheap alcohol encourages revellers to drink at home.
The fact is pubs are having to offer customers more, which means publicans are having to think of new ways to diversify businesses, said Rose Cunningham who is the Somerset, Dorset and Avon (Wessex) adviser for Pub is the Hub.
The Government-backed advisory group was set up ten years ago and offers support and guidance to pubs that may be failing. The Somerset arm of the group will be launched next year, said Mrs Cunningham.
“We found from our research that the village seems to die if there isn’t anything there. So it helps if the pub can do anything else, such as holding parish council meetings,” she said.
Examples of pubs branching out include the Three Elms in North Wootton, near Sherborne, which now incorporates the village shop and post office. Sue and John Barker took on the venture after the closure of nearby Alweston’s only shop.
Mr Barker said: “It helps the actual standing of the pub in its community. If pubs have got the space, then I would say go for it. It’s a benefit to the community and we meet more of the community because we get a wide diversity of people coming in.
“People who wouldn’t come in to use the pub will now come in to use the shop and post office. We would never have seen them before.”
The Queen’s Arms, in Corton Denham, has cinema nights for its customers and The Plucknett in Preston Road, Yeovil, offered its premises to a church for weekly meetings.