I am pleased to speak in support of Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendment 22. I think they will make a material difference to the fortunes of many of Britain’s 48,000 pubs; give certainty to investors in the pub trade; and, crucially, put communities back in control of decisions that have a real bearing on their community. I speak as chairman of the renamed all-party parliamentary pub group, and as a real pub enthusiast.
I would like to record my appreciation of many people and groups in securing this important victory, including Lord Kennedy who tabled the amendment in the House of Lords and was very successful in ensuring such overwhelming cross-party support that the Government were persuaded to adopt the amendment in lieu. I also thank the pub-supporting campaign groups such as CAMRA and the British Pub Confederation, and my fellow members of the all-party parliamentary group on pubs, who held a really informative round table last week on the many different approaches across the country to using the planning system to save pubs.
I would also like to acknowledge, as did the Minister, the important work done by my predecessor as chair of the APPG, Greg Mulholland, who proposed the motion in Committee that was subsequently supported by my hon. Friend Jim McMahon.
I also think it right to acknowledge that Charlotte Leslie originated the process with an amendment to a different Bill. Although the case she made was unsuccessful, it has proved important in bringing about this change.
As I said a moment ago, I am grateful to the Government for broadly adopting a motion to which there had been some hostility. It takes courage to change one’s mind. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Percy, came to the CAMRA reception and assured us that the Government were listening, and the Government’s actions on this occasion suggest that he was as good as his word. All due credit should be paid to him.
There is nothing quite like the first visit to any British pub. I know that I am not alone in feeling that little frisson of excitement when I step through the door of a pub for the first time—pushing open that creaking door, and wondering what will be waiting for me behind it. It is, one might say, an adult and real-life version of an Advent calendar: behind every door is a different surprise.
As one of those doors creaks open, we wonder how the pub will be laid out. Will we will be able to get a table? Who will be in there, and how many people will be in there? What will be on the walls, and what will the bar look like? Each pub is different. Will the bar steward’s face be a picture of welcoming joy—or maybe not? Will there be a log fire in the winter? Will there be a garden in the summer? Will there be a dartboard, a pool table, a pub dog or cat? Will a loudmouth be propping up the bar, commenting on topics on which he has assumed a level of expertise from a programme that he once saw on television? Will someone be commenting on the performance of his Member of Parliament and asking, inevitably, whether that Member of Parliament will be claiming his pint back on expenses? That one never really grows old.
Finally, of course, there is the question of what the pub will be serving. There is so much more to visiting a pub than having a drink, and that is the magic of it. I know my own favourite beers, and I can pop into Morrisons just down the road and buy as much as I like, far more cheaply than I can in many pubs. However, the drinks are just a fraction of the experience; the magic comes from the entire ensemble. Just as there is a magic to visiting any pub for the first time, there is a joy in having a local where you really feel at home, and where the characters, the beers, the landlord or landlady and the décor seem almost as familiar as if you were indeed in your own home.
We live in different times, and—let us be candid—in difficult times for the pub trade. The days when a single publican, running a single pub for decades at a time, was a staple of every high street are long gone. The long-standing publican is now becoming a rarity, and our communities are the poorer for it. However, many of those communities still have long-standing connections and relationships with their local pubs. Whether they are regular attenders or occasional visitors, the pub is a part of their community—one that we all too often take for granted, and a feature that is only really missed when it is under threat or gone.
Let me assure the House that none of us is suggesting that unpopular or poorly run pubs have a right to exist. Communities that do not back their local pub cannot assume that it will always be there. When I bought my house back in 1998 the Terminus was my local, but after a string of landlords within just a few years, it is gone. The only reminders of it are a plaque on the wall that reminds us where it once stood and the local bowling green, which is still called the Terminus Bowling Club although the pub from which it took its name is long gone.
In a small town like Chesterfield, I have to walk a mile to reach what you would call my local, and that, I think, is a comment on the times in which we live. If we do not get out and support our pubs, it is no good complaining when they are gone. Similarly, the industry knows that it is living in an ever more competitive world. The competition for the leisure pound has never been fiercer. From satellite television and a bottle at home to an array of takeaways and restaurants to suit every palate, the alternatives to a pint in the local are multitudinous.
Pubs will continue to close on occasion, but I think that it really sticks in the craw of communities when popular and well-used pubs—or even pubs that play a central role in a community—which may well be under poor management at a particular time are lost for good without the community having any say. The tenant in a pub is not just a business owner but the guardian of something precious in that community, and the duty of the pub-owning business to ensure that the guardians it appoints have the wherewithal to protect the precious assets that they are responsible for running is very important.