May I add to the long list of deserved congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher)? My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble is actually a good friend, not just an honourable one. She may be completely misguided about football—in a minute, I will ask her to intervene and tell us all who won the premier league recently—but she is a good egg none the less. They both showed why their constituents made a good choice.
I wanted to speak in this debate because I think what the Government are proposing is exactly the sort of thing that they should be doing at this time. I welcome the ability to vary construction hours and to extend outline planning permission, and the changes to the Consumer Credit Act to facilitate bounce-back loans, for which I have heard universal praise in my constituency. In contrast with the CBILS loans, where it was felt that the banks were slow and bureaucratic, the bounce-back loans have been warmly welcomed. However, I want to speak particularly about allowing bars, pubs and restaurants to seat and serve people outside, and to focus especially on pubs.
From the Barrington Arms in Shrivenham to the Town Arms in Wallingford, I have 85 pubs in my constituency, which puts it in the top eight by number of pubs. We have heard a lot about how many of them have been closed and had to furlough staff, and how few of them have more than six months’ cash. The Government’s support package for pubs has been phenomenal—the business grant scheme, the furlough scheme and the business rates holiday have all been hugely welcome—but the sector has been in trouble, or at least facing challenges, for some time. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of pubs in the UK fell by 29%, so there have been some real challenges for many years before we got to coronavirus.
In rural constituencies—mine is predominantly rural—those challenges are a particular problem, because the pub is the beating heart of village life. After a certain time, it is quite literally the only light that is on for some considerable distance. Pubs in my constituency, and I am sure those in many others, have been at the heart of the community’s response to coronavirus. The George & Dragon pub in Upton said to elderly and vulnerable people, “If there are any essentials that you can’t get, give us a ring and we will go and find them and bring them to you entirely free of charge.” With the help of a couple of benefactors, the Fox in Denchworth has been giving free fish and chips to every villager every week during this period—that is 171 villagers—and has now set a challenge in which people can earn gift vouchers to spend there if they lose 10% of their body weight in two months. Many of us could join that challenge in the hope of having a healthier lifestyle.
Despite all the challenges they have faced, those pubs have been there for their communities, and now those communities want to be there to support their pubs. Reducing the distance from 2 metres to 1 metre will certainly help, but measures to allow them more easily to seat and serve people outside will make it that little bit easier for us to support them and give them the best chance of survival.