I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Wills on securing this important debate. It reinforces his reputation as an excellent campaigning Member of Parliament who consistently raises issues of concern to his constituents.
The future of pubs is of great public interest, nowhere more so than in rural settings where they not only perform the social function that they do anywhere else, but may be the only place in the community where the village can meet, trade, and, in one or two cases, even vote. I know from more than 10 years of living and working in Wiltshire that that county has a great many fantastic rural pubs. The north of the county, in particular, enjoys the beautiful setting of the landscapes that we associate with the Cotswolds.
Some pubs, such as "The Red Lion" in Castle Eaton in my hon. Friend's constituency, offer the chance to have a relaxed drink in a beer garden on the banks of the Thames. I am sure that the wise voters of Swindon not only enjoy the local pub, but take advantage of some of the wonderful countryside around and about for a walk at the weekend. What better way to round off a nice Sunday walk in the Cotswolds than to enjoy a nice lunch and a pint of Wiltshire's fine Wadworth 6X in a rural pub? I enjoy a similar experience in my constituency on a monthly basis when the Red Ramblers get together and enjoy a good walk, political discussion and a fine pint of Dorset Badger beer at the end.
Rural pubs play a crucial role in promoting local food and tourism. I was lucky enough to visit "The Three Fishes" in the Ribble valley this autumn. The owners not only served excellent food and drink in a quality environment, but positively celebrated the local sourcing of that food. The walls of the pub were decorated with photographs of the local farmers who supply the superb produce. That reconnection of consumers with producers is crucial to the future of rural areas as a whole. The work of "The Three Fishes" demonstrated the best practice in that regard.
For all those reasons, I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the economic viability of pubs. If they are to continue as important community centres, vital parts of the tourism industry and, as he described them, the beating heart of rural communities, they need to continue to be a viable part of the rural economy. Evidence of their state of health is not clear. I heard what he said about the number of closures. On the other hand, an analysis of the interdepartmental business register indicates that there were about 12,000 public houses in rural England in 2003, employing about 50,000 people. The same analysis suggests that the number of pubs in rural England increased by 3 per cent. from 2000 to 2003.
I would add the caution that, although the analysis has not been carried out in sufficient detail to be certain, the growth in rural pubs appears to be largely in those areas with higher numbers of visitors, and we know from the same work that the number of independent pubs has fallen by 8 per cent. I have studied the report from the Trade and Industry Committee that my hon. Friend referred to and I am aware of concerns about the functions of the relationship between a limited number of pubcos and their tenants. There may be a relationship between the fall in the number of independent pubs and the state of the sector in rural areas in general.
We live in a world of seemingly ever-increasing change. The changes affect every corner of life and inevitably have an impact on rural areas. Change can be viewed as a threat or an opportunity. The 2004 rural strategy sets out how the Government will support rural communities through the change. Both elements of the priority on social and economic regeneration are relevant to pubs in rural areas. At one level, rural pubs are simply businesses. They are important to the area of the economy that they serve. They operate in a free market and must respond to market forces, given the strengths and weaknesses that my hon. Friend describes. Government intervention should be a last resort and should deliver clearly defined public benefits.
The Government will support such businesses by ensuring that the business advice is tailored to meet local needs, including rural needs. I pay tribute to the work done in that regard by my hon. Friend when he was small business Minister. Officials from my Department work closely with the Small Business Service and representatives of the social enterprise sector to explore the best ways of meeting the objectives of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Yesterday, I talked to the Plunkett Foundation about some of these matters. Where appropriate, co-operatives should be encouraged in the running of pubs. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend to reassure him on that and the other points about which he wanted me to correspond with him.
The Government allow councils to reduce business rates by between 50 and 100 per cent. for pubs that are the last retail outlet in the village. The Government's new licensing rules also provide good business opportunities for pubs. Rural pubs know their customers better than anybody else and we are giving them the freedom to offer the services that their customers want in a single licence. They need only the one licence to cover a range of activities and no longer have to make trips to court to renew licences or apply for new ones. They no longer have to apply for a range of separate permissions if they want to open longer for special events, whether it be for St. George's day celebrations or for late-night viewing of sporting events.
As well as being businesses, rural pubs are often the focal point of village life— especially in those villages without a village hall or other centre. The Government want local communities to be empowered to control their own destiny. That includes keeping services that the communities consider important, including pubs as appropriate.
The Government support that social function. Public houses are explicitly recognised in planning policy statement 7 as one of a number of services and facilities with a role in sustaining village communities. Local authorities can refuse to grant permission for a change of use and thus provide an opportunity to keep a pub. The evidence suggests that this power has been successfully used on a number of occasions.
Beyond that basic protection, I am also interested in what more pubs can provide and are providing. Part of the challenge of running a business or providing a public service in rural areas is achieving a viable economy of scale. It is often achieved by diversifying a business and by co-locating services. Co-location can be good for the pub and good for the community.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Pub is the Hub initiative, which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. Pub is the Hub is an initiative of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, president of Business in the Community, to encourage pub owners, licensees and local communities to support and maintain local services, and increase the viability of rural pubs. It was set up in 2001.
Pub is the Hub is an independent advisory trust, and it is assisted by the rural action team of BITC, together with the professional pub and drinks industries and other Government and statutory bodies interested in using pub or other rural properties for the support and supply of social enterprise services.
Pub is the Hub is a national body. It is able to co-ordinate activity, advice and industry training that requires pub experience, business aptitude and the raising of necessary funds to support adequately those activities, based upon the current six requests for help each week and more than 400 general inquiries each month via its website. I had a look at the website this morning, and it is very helpful.
Pub is the Hub is not a pub preservation group, but it seeks to encourage social enterprise and diversification where pubs can deliver commercial viability in supporting many rural services that are either under threat or may have recently ceased trading. The main aim is to encourage the co-location of other rural services, sharing overheads and costs, and thereby meeting the service needs of rural communities.
One excellent example of a Pub is the Hub pub is "The Beauchamp Arms" in Dymock in the very north of Gloucestershire, the county adjacent to Wiltshire. In that case, an enterprising parish council had the imagination to grasp an opportunity when the last pub in the village was put up for sale. The council took out a public board loan and purchased the pub, which is adjacent to the village hall. The pub is managed by a management company, and a successful lottery bid, with the excellent help of the Gloucestershire rural community council, has led to the extension of the hall, using the land acquired with the pub.
The community now literally owns the pub. Even during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, the village rallied round and used the pub more to keep takings up. The Pub is the Hub website tells me that a number of community groups, such as the playgroup and the parents and teachers association hold meetings there, and there is a monthly lunch for Dymock's over-60s club. The landlord is keen to support other local businesses, and he sources as many of the bar meal ingredients as possible from local suppliers, including the local cheese maker and the butcher and baker from nearby villages.
Dymock is not alone. Already 200 post offices are located in pubs in rural areas; 80 rural shops, convenience stores or bakeries are located in pubs. Fifteen village communities have purchased their own pub, as Dymock has, either as a co-operative or part of a group. A village, Heskett Newmarket, has even bought a brewery.
Pub is the Hub is an excellent initiative. I am keen to work with it on expanding the concept and services like the co-location of post offices. A few months ago, one of my most senior officials spoke at its launch and has joined its national steering board. Its first meeting was on Monday of this week. I hope that that is a demonstration of DEFRA's support.
I come now to the worries of the Select Committee to which my hon. Friend referred. We will continue to monitor the relationship between pubcos and tenants. I will make sure that my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry are aware of my hon. Friend's comments. The issue affects pubs everywhere, not only in rural areas. Over the past few years, I have worked with the British Beer and Pub Association and have found it to be an effective and professional organisation. My hon. Friend said that it has agreed to develop a code of practice and that that will be published soon.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that if we can urge the industry to resolve matters on a voluntary basis, that is better than the Government imposing a solution. I am equally sure that he, the Select Committee and the DTI will monitor events closely, as will I. I wanted to make that clear because the issue is important. I shall, in particular, be examining the problems of exploitation to which my hon. Friend referred in the working hours of publicans and the transparency of rents—the whole arrangement.
The debate has been worth while. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for introducing it. It has given me a welcome opportunity to respond on something for which I am responsible. Usually in this Chamber, I am responding on behalf of my noble Friend, Lord Bach, on issues for which he responsible. I shall write to my hon. Friend about the issues about which he was particularly concerned during the time frame that he described. I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to focus on such a crucial bedrock of rural communities—the local pub. The Government are committed to working with the industry to ensure that the sector remains healthy and that the opportunities to embed local pubs in the community through social enterprise can be grasped.