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If you want to know what estate agents think is the most important feature when they are selling the location of a rural property in Britain, take a look at the order in which they list the local amenities in the property blurb. I’ve just checked the particulars of the house we ended up buying here in a Wiltshire village a couple of years ago: local schools and train stations with links to London are near the bottom; supermarkets and cinemas around about the middle; top of the list, in pride of place, the “Local Village Pub”. And so it should be. The one in our village-to-be was a classic with a lovely garden and even a babbling brook.
Unfortunately, between the estate agents putting together the brochure details and us moving in, the pub had closed down.
There was another pub 10 minutes away across the fields in the next village, so we weren’t totally bereft of a boozer. Yes, a bit more time and exercise was involved in getting there and back, but then our loss was the dogs’ gain. So not a total disaster, but when this sort of thing happens on your own doorstep it does throw those frightening statistics of weekly pub closures into stark relief. And it does raise the question of why, if they’re valued so highly as a part of village life, pubs are still closing at such a terrifying rate. Thirty plus per week was the last figure I could find. Like Shakespeare or village cricket or the BBC, the country pub is a Great British Institution, part of our international heritage. And we’re witnessing its not-so-gradual extinction.
There have been plenty of villains in the dock: price hikes by greedy breweries, tax hikes from the exchequer, the smoking ban, cheap booze in supermarkets, politicians with the power to do something about it being oblivious to the problem in their cosy subsidised bars at Westminster — and not being too bothered about the rural vote anyway. It could be any combination of the above.
But the fundamental point is: not enough of us are using our village pubs. And that includes visitors — whether you’re from London, Beijing or Barcelona. If you’d like to see that village pub still here when you’re next over, drop in for a pint. It will help.
Us locals have been told to “use it or lose it” for years, but still not enough of us do. And the decline in pub usage is not good for us either. Keeping sane in isolated parts of the countryside has always been a bit of a challenge: we’re social animals, we need other people. Jean-Paul Sartre said hell was other people, but then he also said that if you feel lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company. Well we can’t all be Sartres. The rest of us go a bit stir crazy from time to time and need to get out and about and be around other human beings. In the countryside the local village pub is often your only option. If it’s not there, you’re in trouble. And if things continue the way they’re going, a lot more people in rural Britain will be going quietly nuts in splendid rural isolation in the future.
Nobody seems to be doing anything about it. It’s as if the general belief is that the village pub has had its day; markets decide; it’s a bit of creative capitalist destruction and just one of those things.
But of course it wasn’t just one of those things when another great institution was under threat in 2008. If the market had been left to decide whether our banking system was fit for purpose, the whole lot of them would have gone down the plughole double-quick. But it was decided then that, for the sake of the country, our banks had to be saved.
Well, maybe now, for the sake of our countryside, our pubs have to be saved.
In 2008 there was a lot of blue-sky thinking around. Governments decided to forget about the free market economy for a bit and get taxpayers to bail out the banks to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. As the crisis deepened and our economy struggled, the Bank of England reduced interest rates to almost zero, which was essentially a tax on savers and a big encouragement to borrowers. That seemed very blue- sky indeed to a lot of us who had always imagined, before the crisis, that saving was supposed to be encouraged rather than punished as it provided funds for banks to invest in new businesses. But the financial experts this time decided that a consumer-led recovery was the thing to go for, and that meant doing everything they could to encourage everyone to spend. Whether they could afford it or not, it was all for the general good of the country.
Perhaps it’s time we took a leaf out of the economists’ book to solve the village pub crisis; save the pubs not just by encouraging locals to use them, but by actively discouraging them from staying at home: a tax on non-pubgoers. Why not? It’s just like the concept of taxing savers till they start spending. Why not tax non-pubgoers until they get down the pub and have a couple. It would be good for them to get out and about anyway, and they would benefit along with other locals, not just in keeping their village pub but also in the way a thriving local increases the attractiveness of an area and adds a premium to local house prices. Win-win, as they say.
And if some locals persist in not using their village pub, then the tax raised could be used to give beer tokens to the local unemployed and hard-up pensioners — to be redeemed, of course, at their local. They could all do with some cheering up. It would be much more fun than the butter tokens they used to hand out in the 1970s.
Of course, some will think the idea outrageous, but then that’s often the case with new ideas, especially ones based on economic theory. The idea of negative interest rates seemed ridiculous to most of us when we first heard it. But now even sensible countries such as Switzerland and Denmark are using them, and they seem positively normal. The more familiar a crazy idea becomes, the more normal it seems. And if it works, hey, why not?
There would be a supplement for “local hostelry support” on our council tax bills. And then we’d need some techno wiz kids to come up with an app that would sort out the rebates for pub users automatically. Or perhaps hard- copy tokens redeemable against the council tax supplement for the less techno-capable among us. It wouldn’t be that hard to sort out, surely. And the prize would be our local village pubs thriving once more.
If there’s one thing sadder than a boarded-up village pub, it is a pub in its last throws of decline; when you pop in for a bite at lunchtime and the only other people there are a surprised barmaid texting on her mobile and a chef dozing in the kitchen. They smile and do their best, but you know that your custom is not going to be enough and that their wages, as you chat to them, are just ticking away.
It’s time we did something to save the ones that are left. It’s time to get tough on non-pubgoers.
Photographs: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos; John Miller/Getty Images