Raising a glass to Shropshire pubs' future
When The Pheasant pub closed, it was a huge blow to the tiny village of Neenton, near Bridgnorth, writes Mark Andrews.
"There wasn't any other public space in the village, we didn't have a village hall or a local shop," says villager John Pickup.
"The whole social fabric was under threat. It was a question that if we didn't do something about rescuing it, we would have ceased to be a village, we would have become just a collection of houses where people didn't talk to their neighbours."
Nine years on The Pheasant is celebrating its first six months as a community enterprise after being taken over by Mr Pickup and his fellow villagers. The pub reopened as a community enterprise in January, and marked its half-year anniversary with the opening of its new guest rooms for overnight stays.
The Pheasant, at Neenton, was a sorry sight for many years.
The pub occupies a prominent position on the road between Ludlow and Bridgnorth and it was down – but not quite out.
After years in the wilderness it re-emerged with a new team behind the bar. And the community enterprise that runs The Pheasant has successfully chartered it through its first six months of business.
The difficulties facing the pub industry are well documented and figures from the Campaign for Real Ale suggest the picture is still dominated by closures.
However, the successful reopening of The Pheasant represents a chink of light among the dark news.
Locals had been fed up that they had no village hall or village shop. They decided that The Pheasant should be reborn.
Their enterprise is to be applauded and it is to be hoped that others will learn from their example. By all accounts, the venue now seems to be going from strength to strength and guest rooms are being opened to boost revenues.
Of course, community enterprises might not work everywhere. But when they do, they provide the community with a good news story in an industry that continues to face a challenging period.
"It's been going pretty well," says Mr Pickup. "We have hit our targets so far, and I think we need to see what the summer brings. If we get a proper summer, we would expect to see an upturn in business."
Not every community is so lucky, though.
Latest figures from the Campaign for Real Ale say that in the past six months alone, a total of 220 pubs across the Midlands have closed, compared to 69 new ones which have opened – a 1.7 per cent decline. Or put another way, the loss of around six pubs in the region every week.
"We are still seeing closures, we have still got the threat," says pubs surveys officer for Telford and East Shropshire, Dave Haddon.
"Pub land is a valuable estate, and if the locals aren't using them, then they will find a more profitable use for them," he warns.
It is this commercial value which has stalled plans by villagers in Kinnerley, near Oswestry, to run their local, The Cross Keys, in a similar way to the Pheasant.
The pub closed following a fire last year. And although it has now been declared a community asset under new government legislation – giving villagers first refusal should it go on sale – a committee set up to take on the pub says it is being hamstrung by a planning application to turn it into houses.
John Dyson, of the Cross Keys Action Committee, said volunteers have been raising money in the hope of buying the building for the community.
"The problem is of course, if permission is granted then it will be on the market for housing rather than a pub which will be reflected in the asking price," said Mr Dyson.
"All we can do at the moment is to keep a close eye on the planning application and keep the community informed on how the Cross Keys could be run as a community asset pub," he added.
Mr Haddon says as pubs are forced to compete with a dwindling band of customers, location is becoming increasingly important.
"There's confidence in the towns, but it seems the rural areas are still a little bit depressed," he says.
"It is definitely more positive than it was a year ago," he says, pointing out that the New Inn at Oreton has also reopened after lying empty for several years, while The Woodberry Inn in Bridgnorth was also benefiting from a major restoration project.
However, Mr Haddon adds that the prospect of rising interest rates, raised by the Governor of the Bank of England last week, could heap fresh problems on the beleaguered trade.
And there is another shake-up in store following last year's surprise vote in the House of Commons to end the 400-year-old "beer-tie" which obliges many pub landlords to buy beer from a single supplier.
The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has been a strong supporter of the reform, with 45,000 people having signed the group's petition. Camra says it will free landlords from restrictive contracts which have left them unable to make a living, and says it could potentially result in a 60p cut in the price of a pint.
Former tied landlord Chris Bird, who ran the White Horse at Hodge Bower in Ironbridge from 2002 to 2006, says the tied arrangement made it near-impossible for him to earn a living from his pub.
While the White Horse thrived and picked up numerous awards, the terms imposed left him struggling to get by on £90 a week.
"It was very difficult to make a living, we were effectively unpaid managers," he says. "If you increased your takings, they increased the rent."
Mr Bird's business partner Andy Jones, who ran the White Horse with him, also believes the change will be good news for the industry, although he says it could lead to more closures in the short term.
"I think there will be some initial shakedown, but in the long run it will help," he says.
The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), whose members own around 20,000 of the nation's pubs, warns that the changes could result in 1,400 pub closures across Britain, with the loss of 7,000 jobs.
Chief executive Brigid Simmonds says: "This change effectively breaks the 'beer tie', which has served Britain's unique pub industry well for nearly 400 years. It would hugely damage investment and jobs."
However this reform of the industry pans out, there can be little doubt that a decade from now the licensed trade will look very different from today.
All the indications are that the number of pubs will continue to decline in the foreseeable future, with the only question being how fast, and for how long.
The end of the beer-tie will almost certainly have a big impact on the "pubcos", while the 2012 Assets of Community Value legislation could see far more pubs being run by local community groups in a similar vein to The Pheasant.
Mr Pickup says it would be naive to think that running any pub is easy in the present climate, and says it has been a steep learning curve for all involved.