"When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England"
I'm a big fan of pubs. Some of my favourite days and most regrettable nights have been spent in them. They're a great British institution which is sadly and slowly disappearing. Unless local and central government make changes then we risk losing an important part of our culture.
This week 26 pubs will close across the United Kingdom. In Barnet, the London borough where I live, there are currently community campaigns to save a number of pubs which have either been closed or are being threatened with closure. The picture is the same across much of the city, with London set to make a net loss of over 100 pubs this year.
Of course the problem isn't specific to London, in 2012 alone Blackburn lost 20% of its pubs. The problem also isn't new. Britain's watering holes have been in decline for a number of years. By the end of 2011 we had around 17,000 fewer pubs than we did 30 years ago.
So why is this important? It's important because pubs have played a key role in our country for centuries. Take for example The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, which is one of my favourite pubs. It's been around since the 16th century and over the years it's played host to thousands of gatherings and events. Among other claims to fame it has featured in Dracula and The Pickwick Papers, and it was in that very beer garden where Keats wrote 'Ode to a Nightingale'. The pub may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it would be wrong to suggest that it's played anything other than a positive role in the community.
Even closer to me is The Castle on Finchley Road which served the area for over 250 years before it closed last year. It's a stunning old building, complete with a commemorative blue plaque, but now it sits empty. It's just a big boarded up shell that's waiting to be filled or turned into housing.
The cost of running a pub has increased by around 12% since 2011. Furthermore, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers has put the average cost or running a pub at 46.5% of turnover. This problem is compounded by increasing costs from breweries, with some licensees being landed with an additional 5p on the cost of every pint in 2013 alone. Part of the reason for the increase is due to the cost of resources, but another part of it is about profits.
Unfortunately the increasing costs have to be passed on to consumers. But that's not even the main problem. The main problem is that roughly one third of what we pay for every pint is tax. Even last year after George Osborne cut the beer duty escalator (and three cheers for that) it still meant the average pint cost over 50p in VAT and even more in Excise Duty.
With that in mind it's no wonder that almost half (49%) of all beer is now bought from off-licenses/supermarkets, many of which use it as a loss-leader. One of the ways that the Scottish government has tried to respond to the sale of dangerously cheap booze in supermarkets is by introducing minimum pricing for shops. Many of the leading health charities are backing the move, but unfortunately it's been caught up in a long legal quagmire.
Unfortunately in Scotland the move towards increasing costs in supermarkets has coincided with stricter regulations for licensed premises. When I was President of my student's union our cocktail and sports bars were hit by a host of new and unnecessary rules. The changes meant that any drinks promotions we ran had to last for a minimum of 48 hours, happy hours were barred and the cost of a double spirit couldn't be cheaper than that of two singles. None of this has helped the industry, with Scottish pubs closing at a faster rate than anywhere else in Britain.
What is needed is for government to unequivocally support our pubs by freezing tax on alcohol for the long term - or even cutting it - while reviewing or revoking regressive and misguided legislation. If we are to judge that Britain has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol then surely pricing people out of pubs and pushing them into supermarkets isn't doing anything to help.
Local councils can play their part by listing their public houses as valuable community assets. This process sees their status upgraded and means that if the owner decides to sell the property then it will trigger a moratorium on the sale for up to six months. This wouldn't necessarily stop any closures, but it would delay the process so that communities wouldn't lose any more pubs without having the chance to show their support or consider putting in a community bid.
Furthermore, councils in Cambridge and Islington have introduced their own pub protection policies. This makes it much harder for planning loopholes to be exploited to turn pubs into housing or betting agencies
With the right support from central and local governments, as well as punters, the industry can rebuild and thrive again. However, without it Hilaire Belloc's bleak vision will be one step closer to becoming a reality.