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Red drought versus the Red Lion

Friday 20 August 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard ponders the dark side of the global economy and fears that a drought in Russia might be yet one more threat to one of his favourite institutions, the English country pub

THERE is a temptation amongst country folk to cut themselves off from events in the big cities - and wider afield - and bury their heads in the sands of local comings and goings. Sadly, from time to time, there comes an event from which we can no longer isolate ourselves.

This week has brought one of those, an event hundreds or even thousands of miles away which could have severe consequences for a country institution which is already under dire threat, the village pub.

Signs of the times: Skipton pub for let or sale

Now it is news to no-one that the pub as a social hub of English life for centuries is in deep trouble, both in town and country. They have been hit by ever-rising prices, competition from cut-price liquor sales by supermarket chains, the smoking ban and in some areas drunken yobbos driving out decent folk.

Country pubs, fortunately, are less prone to the latter – in a village where everyone knows you and your family, good behaviour is more or less demanded – but there are other disadvantages: the breathalyser started the decline some 40 years ago and since there has been the huge growth of second homes, occupied for only a few weeks of the year by people more likely to drink wine over dinner than take a pint in the pub.

These are knowns and their affects have been devastating. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, pubs are closing at a rate of 39 a week. Last year, 2,365 close down throughout the country, costing 24,000 jobs. One recent estimate suggested that eight of the closures every week were in rural areas.

This week, another threat arose from a most unlikely source: the Russian steppes. Because of a severe drought in Russia (along with huge forest fires), Prime Minister Putin has forbidden the exports of Russian wheat and – important for the subject under discussion – barley.

Russia is one of the world’s major grain exporting nations and this ban comes alongside a big drop in American exports caused by farmers switching to bio-fuel production. Result: the highest ever known prices on the international grain markets. And barley, of course, is one of the essential ingredients of beer.

This will come as yet another double whammy for our beleaguered publicans, because VAT goes up to 20% in January, adding 6p to a pint which already carries swingeing excise duty. And, of course, the VAT rise will also send the costs of delivery from brewery to pub soaring.

This nightmare scenario could be further exacerbated by a rise in the price of barley so that a drought in Red Russia could be the straw that breaks the Red Lion’s back in dozens more English village and market town pubs.

I could see the £3 pint becoming £3.50 on average – and £4 is on the cards...

There is already much talk of the £3 pint in the near future but, dear reader, that has already arrived (or almost) in many market towns, which seem particularly vulnerable – especially if there is a large supermarket in the area selling cheap alcohol.

I already pay £2.90p for locally brewed real ale in Kirby Lonsdale and some Skipton pubs (the ones that are still in business, that is). For specialist beers like Guinness or the stronger lagers, the £3 mark was passed some months ago. With VAT, delivery and barley price rises at the end of the year, I could see the £3 pint becoming £3.50 on average – and £4 is on the cards for premium brews.

At this time of national near bankruptcy, it is difficult to argue in favour of tax cuts. But the Coalition Government has already expressed its desire to support the Big Society and the country pub has many influential supporters including, notably, Prince Charles, who launched his “Pub is the Hub “ scheme here in the Yorkshire Dales a few years ago.

That recommends the village pub taking over other roles where the normal supplier is also at risk, like the local sub post office or shop. The Government’s Big Society is encouraging local volunteers to take on a wider range of tasks and there are already some pubs in wealthier villages run by the locals.

So here’s a thought: for many years now excise duty has been kept low on Scotch whisky to help the Scottish economy. When I was a cub reporter, a small measure of Scotch cost almost twice a pint of bitter. Now, it is about a third less.

If we are serious about saving the English country pub, why can’t we do a similar deal on real ale and make up the loss of revenue by increasing taxes on “Wife Beater” strong lagers (as they are known to CAMRA members), alco-pops, and supermarket alcohol sales. That’s a measure that would be both socially useful and popular. Cheers!

Feedback received on this subject:

I agree with everything you say about the demise of the British Pub, John, but can this latest threat be true? Don't English brewers use only premium quality British malting barleys?

Simon Smith Skipton

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