Sunday, 19 May 2013

Puppet on a string?

As a preface to this post here are the lyrics to Puppet on a String ... well, after all, it has been Eurovision Song Contest time and by the time you've read what follows you'll understand... anyway, to battle! 

An interesting piece of opinion came my way from Neil Morgan, head of pubs at Christie+Co, estate agents to the pub trade, on the subject of Assets of Community Value (ACV) in respect of pubs. In his piece, published on various blogs and in various newsletters, he quite rightly points out that for all pubs threatened with closure the ACV route is, in many cases, a pipe dream for those who attempt to save their local from development into alternative use, such as "convenience retailing" or residential projects.

I take some issue, however, with some of his analysis of the unintended consequences he posits as "hampering the pace of economic recovery" as the process can put a "substantial block on the transactional process". 

Or to put it another way random redevelopment of parts of the national pub estate being delayed by six months to allow local communities to "jump on the 'save our pub' bandwagon" is going to be what? The final straw that breaks the British economy's back? Will the technocrats from the OECD, the IMF, and The World Bank be sweeping into Westminster to subjugate the democratic will of the people because a few greedy corporate types have had to put some demolitions or building work on hold?

I think not, after all many of these pubs have been systematically under-invested and over-rented in a cold-blooded policy of marginalisation to prepare them for sale for alternative use; a process, which, can in many cases take several years. So what's the sodding hurry now Neil? Instructions from clients a bit thin on the ground at the moment?

Christie+Co have conducted a survey with "convenience store operators and some tenanted pub companies" (which, by the way should have taken them all of about 3 hours - a couple of calls to Punch, Enterprise, Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose etc) to find out "what the major problems they face in terms of trading business" are. And get this, according to Morgan, in terms of trading businesses "by far the biggest concern to them were delays in planning, which listing all threatened pubs as ACVs will surely add to".

So let me get this right matey, the biggest concern to the likes of Tesco et al isn't fuel and food price inflation, it's not the mountains of red-tape that often constrain business in the UK (be it large or small) it’s the 300 pubs who Morgan reckons "CAMRA and their equally well-intentioned friends in Parliament" believe can be saved from closure or alternative use that are taxing the board, executives and shareholders of UK retail plc? Come off it you patronising dolt.

Whilst I will admit when the clarion call of 'save our pub' is heard it "masks the former disinterest of punters" as Morgan puts it in his ever-not so subtle put down of local communities and his hope they will become thriving businesses. (For those of you old enough to remember, you'll understand why I can hear the voice of Hughie Green "And I mean that most sincerely"). I have no issue with his point of view to a certain extent, it is his assertion pubs should not be considered as of greater 'community value' than a convenience store, as the latter bring jobs and affordable housing to communities where no such opportunities exist I have a problem with. (Still, I suppose for Chrisite+Co 'opportunity knocks'........... down pubs.)

Are we really to believe the likes of Tesco put more into the communities they serve than pubs? Lest we not forget their former chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy who believes the closure of corner shops and their replacement with his brand of convenience store is "part of progress". Drone strikes instead of (wo)manned bomber planes are also reckoned to be progress by some, doesn't mean they're right or moral.

The Institute for Public Policy Research paper "Pubs and places: The social value of community pubs" has this to say:

"At the same time, pubs are not just about beer, if everyone visited a pub to drink alcohol on their own, a definitive component of pub culture would be lost. The community pub at its heart is an institution for social drinking and it is from fulfilling that function that so many of its positive benefits flow."

… they also reckon community pubs put some £80,000 a year into their local economies.

The New EconomicsFoundation (NEF), an independent economic think tank based in London, compared what happens when people buy produce at a supermarket vs. a local farmer's market or community supported agriculture (CSA) program and found that twice the money stayed in the community when folks bought locally. "That means those purchases are twice as efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive," says author and NEF researcher David Boyle. I would venture to say money spent in pubs is of similar value.

This self-serving crony (Morgan not Boyle) of property companies such as Punch/Enterprise and facilitator of cultural vandalism by the ever expanding supermarket chains even has the temerity to suggest his view, expounded in 1999, that the "UK pub sector was over-populated to the tune of 10,000 pubs" . His assertion "customers have decided with their feet that around 7,000 pubs are obsolete" since then, has really put my dander up.

I first read this promulgation on Friday (17th), it has taken me this much time to simmer down and not print something wholly libellous or at the very least utterly offensive. However, I still have to say to Morgan "WTF?" … your company has a vested interest in the sale of pubs to developers etc through the handsome fees you charge so of course suggesting (you will note from the implied arithmetic) a further 3,000 pubs have to go is going to be your mantra … it has been for some time.

We're also treated to the view that the market has spoken "as customers have decided with their feet that around 7,000 pubs are obsolete". But hang on Mr Morgan, surely it hasn't only been consumer choice to blame for record numbers of pub closures? Could the crippling level of duty imposed by this and previous administrations been partly to blame? Couldn't the need of some of your corporate clients to divest themselves of huge swathes of property to service the gargantuan levels of debt they have accumulated be partly to blame? Maybe, and I only say just maybe, perhaps the introduction of the smoking ban has had some effect? Here's another thought could it be the irresponsible alcohol sales policies of the major supermarkets have been a significant factor in the decimation of the national pub estate?

Your hatchet job on the thousands of hard-working publicans who have through no fault of their own, lost everything to the morally bankrupt business models of zombie pubcos such as Punch and Enterprise and the whims of misguided legislation is a wilful calumny of nose-stretching proportions. As for blaming communities, who have no say in the disposal of their social amenities, for not supporting the run-down 'bottom end' of the market after years of deliberate ruination of those very same amenities by some of your clients is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Your belief so eloquently articulated as "natural shrinkage in pub numbers, leaving only the best and better-supported pubs", to mask yours and others' corporate strategy, implies the fault lies with operators and their customers; and, sorry but I just don't believe the loss of some 7,000 pubs is anywhere near natural shrinkage

I despair of your dystopian future there will be no room for the likes of Orwell's "Moon Under Water" or the 3,000 other pubs you consider to be less than "the best"… there will only be room for the homogenous offering of big-brand managed outlets… oh and ever more TescoExpress, MacDonalds' DriveThru, SainsburyLocal and housing only the few can afford.

Much as it pains me to praise our current bunch of politicians, it is to the credit of the coalition that the Localism Act and the introduction of ACVs for pubs, the scrapping of the infamous beer duty escalator and the proposed regulation of the pubcos goes somewhat to redress the damage done to our industry by the 'unintended consequences' of the original Beer Orders that have benefited both Christie+Co and their clients at the expense of a once sustainable industry.

You talk of the increasing "staying at home Sky+ effect" being to blame … I believe it is the "Christie+" effect… whereby another bunch of spivs try to squeeze  every last drop of value from a vulnerable industry and hang the social or long-term economic effects of what they do, who are more to blame.

As I said, I've taken Mr Morgan to task before for his somewhat cynical views regarding the pubco regulation consultation and the 'need' to reduce the national estate by a further 3,000 pubs and was accused of hiding behind the persona of Publican Sam. Anyone with even a modicum of investigative skill can work out who I am. I have invited him to respond publicly to my questions on here and elsewhere, he's chosen to hide behind the corporate wall of Chrisite+Co's public policy statements.

Anyway nursey has brought me my meds and a modicum of calm has descended on me again, good manners prevent me from fully articulating a message to Neil Morgan, suffice it to say if I were crass enough, it would be an exhortation involving leaving the vicinity, micturation and his status as a puppet for the pubcos. 

It's not often I'll admit to being a bit of a plonker, but having spoken with Neil at length I am happy to withdraw my remarks about Neil. He certainly has as much passion about pubs as I do and I pay tribute to the work he does outside his company with various bodies who endeavour to protect and nurture our industry. 

So... sorry Neil... I will definitely buy you that beer next time I'm free in London.

(BTW this end-piece has not been written under any kind of duress and is freely and genuinely offered up.)

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