Six point plan to save rural pubs

SOUTH Norfolk council is calling on a powerful all-party committee of MPs to press the government for a freeze or cut in beer duty until the recession is over.

SOUTH Norfolk council is calling on a powerful all-party committee of MPs to press the government for a freeze or cut in beer duty until the recession is over.

In a bid to save rural pubs, district councillors also want breweries and pub companies to be forced to relax beer ties so landlords can buy their own stock and be more competitive. Members of the Conservative-led authority's rural pubs task group are also pressing for new rules on business rate relief so councils can decide which pubs get it.

A six-point plan to save rural pubs has been sent to John Grogan MP, the influential chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group of MPs. It follows a survey of publicans in south Norfolk and a series of crisis meetings with them to thrash out a strategy for ending the catastrophic run of pub closures, which is hurting rural communities.

And, in a poignant reminder of the losses, the campaign has won fresh backing from John Turner, landlord of the 500-year-old Cross Keys in Wymondham who has just announced its closure and filed for bankruptcy.

The pub is right in the centre of one of Norfolk's most famous and beautiful towns and is the latest victim in the tide of pub closures sweeping the country.

The council's task group chairman, Keith Weeks, said: 'We can have no greater indication of the severity of the publicans' situation than the closure of the historic Cross Keys in Wymondham.

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'After standing for 500 years, surviving civil wars, world wars, and several recessions, it now suffers the ignominy of having to close its doors, possibly to never reopen. It is not just the loss of jobs, although that is serious enough, it is the loss of a way of life.

'Visit almost any country and major foreign city and the chances are you will find a 'British Pub', and the sad truth is that at the current rate of closures we could have more 'British Pubs' abroad than in Britain.'

He added: 'It is a sorry state of affairs, but hopefully our efforts at South Norfolk will help at least some of our publicans to turn the tide.'

The letter to John Grogan MP, from councillor Weeks, calls for beer duty to be cut or frozen until Britain comes out of recession, the relaxation of beer ties so publicans can buy stock at lower prices and compete more effectively, and for councils to decide which pubs qualify for business rates relief.

It also calls for a minimum price per unit of alcohol to stop supermarket loss-leader promotions on drink, for pubs to be allowed to recycle glass at bottle banks instead of as trade waste, and a 'level playing field' for pubs and social clubs on business rates.

Mr Turner, 56, who has run the pub for two years, said it was a sad day for Cross Keys but it reflected the tough challenges pubs across the county and nationwide were facing.

He said: 'It's a shame. I have been in the industry since 1989 and this is my third pub, but the economic situation is such that it was not possible to carry on.

'It's very tough at the moment and I feel sorry for the pub industry. I think we will see more pubs closing this year.'

He added: 'Seeing the industry being decimated like this is very sad. What is ridiculous is that despite all the problems we face, beer costs are still going up and those will feed into higher prices in the bar. I expect another 20p on a pint in February. This and all the other overheads publicans face is yet another nail in the coffin for pubs.'

The demise of Cross Keys comes shortly after Wymondham's Woolworth's store shut and has raised concerns that the town's economy could suffer.

However, town and South Norfolk district councillor for Wymondham, Joseph Mooney, who is also a former town mayor, said he was confident the town would bounce back.

He said: 'I'm very sorry that Cross Keys and Woolworths have closed. In the case of Cross Keys I hope it will be sold as a going concern. It's a very nice pub and a good location.

'Obviously it will affect the town's economy in some sense and people have lost their jobs, but I think we will come back from it. I have already heard that some people are interested in taking over the Woolworth's site, so we have got to remain positive.'