What does the future hold for country pubs in Surrey?
PUBLISHED: 20:04 14 May 2012 | UPDATED: 11:40 18 July 2014
With rural pubs closing at an alarming rate these days and supermarket alcohol sales currently outperforming those over the bar for the first time, pub landlords and owners are having to get ever more creative with their offerings. Here, Surrey Life's Jim Keoghan ventures out into our county to discover what the future holds for the area's country pubs...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2012
Ask anyone to describe their ideal village and it’s a good bet that most people will include a pub (in many cases more than one).
Along with post offices and local shops, pubs lie at the heart of many villages, cementing that all-important social bond that sustains our rural communities. But this role is under threat.
Rural pubs are closing at an alarming rate – currently six per week – and it is now estimated that over half of all villages in England and Wales don’t have a pub.
“The recession really isn’t helping things at the moment; it’s having quite an impact on a lot of pubs,” says Paul Cowper, from the Surrey and Hants branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). “But there are also some long-term factors that have been affecting the industry for some time.”
According to Paul, one of the main problems facing publicans at the moment is the growing influence of the ‘pubcos’.
“Many of Britain’s pubs are tied to a few large pub companies, known as pubcos,” he explains. “And their strength in the market has grown considerably in the last ten years.
“Essentially, the pubcos own the pubs and then compel their tenants to buy the beer of their choosing, often at inflated prices. Consequently, the consumer is usually paying a significantly higher price for a pint of beer than need be the case, which chases customers away.
“Some tied pub landlords have even been known to sell beer at a loss just to keep customers coming back.
“The pubcos are then compounding this problem by also charging tenants higher and higher levels of rent and then failing to invest in the pubs that they own.
“They are in effect ruining a significant section of the industry simply to either squeeze as much money as possible out of their tenants or to deliberately make the pub unprofitable, forcing tenants out and providing the opportunity for the pubco to sell the building to developers.”
But it’s not just the pubcos that are contributing to the decline of the village pub. We, as customers, are playing our own part, too.
Over the last decade, the way that we consume and purchase alcohol in this country has changed. Despite headlines about binge drinking, alcohol sales have in fact been declining over the past ten years. And we are also buying less of what we do purchase from pubs.
Last year, for the first time, sales of alcohol from supermarkets exceeded that sold in pubs.
“These trends are hurting a lot of landlords,” says Ian Slater, who owns The Black Swan in Ockham, which often has local brews from the Surrey Hills, Hog’s Back and Tillingbourne breweries on tap.
“The supermarkets in particular are having quite an impact. We’ve been okay but I know a lot of other landlords are having a hard time competing against the incredibly low prices that the supermarkets can sell beer at.”
Hope on tap
But despite the many problems facing pubs, there are glimmers of hope. Every county has its success stories and Surrey is no exception. The Parrot Inn at Forest Green is one such example; a pub that has prospered in recent years, winning several awards.
“My parents had run pubs for years in London but were getting exasperated at the poor quality of food available for their kitchens,” says Lucinda Perks, who helps run The Parrot with her mother, Linda Gotto. “So they decided to buy a farm down here in Surrey and use the food from that for their menus.”
When the chance then arose to buy The Parrot, its proximity to their farm meant that her parents found it too tempting an opportunity to ignore.
“They bought it, did it up and started changing what kind of pub it was,” says Lucinda. “Just like their London pubs, they used the farm to supply the kitchens and created a wonderful restaurant.”
But they also wanted to ensure that the place had a great atmosphere and so were keen to keep the bar and improve it too. They also had the idea of installing a farm shop and then in turn a butcher’s hall and country grocer.
“The last few years have illustrated to us that in addition to making the pub as welcoming a place as possible, you have to innovate and offer something different to succeed – whether that be fantastic, locally produced food or a farm shop or, as some other pubs have done, the incorporation of a community shop,” adds Lucinda. “The reality is that pubs can’t just stand still any more if they want to survive.”
Of course, not every village can have a local pub as innovative and successful as The Parrot Inn and, as a result, several communities might soon face the prospect of losing their village pub. But even if this is the case, there’s no reason to feel powerless.
Take heart and inspiration from the people of Beacon Hill, near Hindhead. Faced with the prospect of losing their local pub, The Woodcock, the villagers have recently joined together to fight back.
“We found out that our sole local pub had been sold by its owners, Fullers, to a development company and was being turned into houses,” says local resident, Richard Maybury.
“To say that we were dismayed is probably an understatement. But we are a strong community and so we set about seeing what we could do to stop what was happening.”
Before long, a committee was established, called Save the Woodcock Action Group (SWAG), which began undertaking research into the sale.
“We did a bit of digging and discovered that the argument that the pub was not a going concern was flawed,” says Richard. “We took proof of the pub’s profitability to the council who then deferred the planning decision by three months.
“We are now confident that the development won’t go ahead and that the developers will either be compelled to run the pub as a business or sell the property as a pub to other owners or tenants. They could – if they wanted to – leave it derelict, but with the loan charges they have on the property I would consider this unlikely.”
One of these potential buyers could even be the villagers themselves. Community-run enterprises in the pub trade have been growing in popularity in recent years and have sprung up across the country.
“If this happens then in effect the locals would own and run the pub,” says Richard. “We have put together an attractive business model for local people, which illustrates that investment in the pub would be more financially beneficial than placing money in a savings account.
“It will be the ultimate community response to the problem we have faced over the future of The Woodcock. ”
The village pub is something that many of us treasure, yet their future is far from certain.
In part, many of the problems they face need government action but other problems can be solved by us as customers. ‘Use it or lose it’ is a phrase that is often bandied about when the closure of important rural services is mooted. In this case, it’s very applicable.
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5 other independent Surrey pub thinkers
The Jolly Farmers, Buckland
This award-winning pub offers a unique combination of pub, restaurant and an integrated delicatessen/farm shop, showcasing the very best of local and regional produce.
The Three Horseshoes, Thursley
Owned and run by the local community, the pub sources much of its food locally and is the current holder of the Surrey Dining Pub of the Year title. In addition, it also stocks a wide range of real ales.
The Inn @ West End
This pub has an excellent menu (locally sourced food, including some ingredients from their own garden) and its own wine shop.
The Surrey Oaks, Newdigate
Complete with its own boule pitches and skittle alley, the pub also has an extensive range of real ales, something that contributed to its naming as Surrey CAMRA Pub of the Year 2011.
The Wiremill, Lingfield
A former 15th century mill on the edge of a stunning lake, it was once famous for producing staples for St Paul’s Cathedral but now, with its boutique bedrooms, hosts weary travellers as well as hungry and thirsty patrons.