Unfortunately the trend is continuing towards smaller dry villages, even though small towns have largely kept up their numbers by new pubs opening to replace those closed. Help may be at hand.
Addressing the meeting were Tony Dadown, RDC; Bernard Segrave-Daly, Adnams Brewery; Peter Lerner, St. Albans DC; Kathy Hadfield, CAMRA Pubs Group and Richard Eyton-Jones of St. Peters Hall & Brewery who kindly hosted the event.
The RDC can help to keep the village pub open with grant assistance if a diversification into tourism is possible, via the redundant building grant. It can help with training costs if the diversification is inclined towards additional services, such as a post office or community caterers. A "Best Practice" guidance brochure is soon to be available for those publicans prepared to change, backed up by a consultancy arm to put the pub on to a business footing. These are in addition to the traditional functions of investigating and researching issues, providing statistics and adding weight to influence local planning authorities.
In developing, the village pub should respect the traditional users, such as the 10 o'clock 2-pint a night man. Food consumption might be usefully restricted to certain areas.
A pub should be protected whatever its building style. Pubs built as houses are alarmingly easy to convert. The plainness of the building adds to its vulnerability but it still houses the community facilities, like notice boards, meeting room etc.
Viability is the key issue. Local authorities can be persuaded that a pub is not viable just by a Brewery spokesman stating so in a positive manner, even though it is a succession of disinterested managers and a tatty looking building which have been the cause of the pubs decline. Maybe there is scope for a viability consultantcy.
At the root of the problem is the Government failure to invest in and sustain rural life. There are a wealth of petty restrictions, including unnecessary and inappropriate Eurocrap, to tie up the rural publican: the ogre of health and hygiene criteria - everything from chopping boards to baby-changing facilities; excessive fire precautions (have you seen those garish industrial emergency lights - would you have one in your home?); all-embracing disabled access, etc Every cost of up-grading should be met by capital concessions.
The Rating Bill could have been a start in the right direction. But it may be doomed to failure, in this case by wholly inappropriate qualifications.
Business rate relief is available to a rural pub if it has a rateable value below £10,000 (far too restrictive - should be at least twice this sum), if it is situated in a village of less than 3000 people (many villages of this size have already lost their pubs - the figure should be 5000), and if it is the only pub in the village. To ensure that no-one at all can benefit from this lip-service, the Government decreed the relief to be discretionary. How many local authorities have such healthy balance sheets as to allow discretionary relief? Whatever happened to the Rural White Paper raised in 1995?