Sam Parker: Bring on people power to help to save our pubs

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ON an otherwise drab day, the green Burmantofts tiles still glint in what little sunlight we have. The entrance, weary with a thousand drunken souls, still draws you in from the gloom of the street but, alas, the City of Mabgate pub in Leeds is long gone, its tiled interior and well worn bar victims of an earlier property boom. Progress, you might say. Closer to heresy, I think.

In this once proud land of pub and pint, we now face the closure of 31 pubs a week. Is this just progress? Is the pub merely a forgotten, unused relic of a bygone era? I, and 164,000 members of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), don’t think so.

The pub is an intrinsic part of Britain’s heritage. From christening parties to funeral wakes, our lives are inextricably linked with them. It’s probably where you had your first kiss, wet your baby’s head, watched your team win the Cup and mourned the loss of a loved one. They share the good times and the bad, the laughs and the lows and, in an ever increasing digital era, become an even more important centre for social interaction.

Imagine Emmerdale without the Woolpack, Coronation Street without the Rovers Return, EastEnders without the Queen Vic or The Archers without the Bull.

Pubs support over a million UK jobs and inject an average of £80,000 into their local economies each year. They provide a safe, supervised drinking environment. Pubs also give incredible support to UK beer and alcohol manufacturers, with 82 per cent of beer sold in pubs being made in the UK.

Pubs currently fall within the A4 planning use class. This means they can be converted to many other use classes, or even demolished, without planning permission or any community consultation. This actively encourages developers and businesses to target the pub trade. Little wonder that on average two pubs are converted to supermarkets every week. Camra and other pro-pub groups are now calling on the Government to recognise that pubs matter and to make a simple change to the law in England so a planning application is always required before one is demolished or converted into another use.

You can do something about this from the comfort of your own living room by visiting the Pubs Matter website. You can lobby your MP to join 44 of their colleagues and sign our Early Day Motion, a way of forcing a debate in Parliament, and email your council to ask for their support. It also only takes a couple of minutes to add your name to our government e-petition.

I’m not naive enough to think that we should be campaigning to save every pub, although as a Camra member I’m duty bound to try, and certainly don’t think change is a dirty word. But surely the pub, especially the community pub, holds an ever more important part in today’s society. I’m often to be found in the Templar Hotel on Vicar Lane in Leeds and even that thriving local has been threatened by the vast cathedrals of commercialism.

Under threat by phase two of the new Victoria Gate development, we have managed to be granted a “stay of execution” so the building will not be demolished in the foreseeable future, although the campaign still goes on. All this has been achieved by people power. Over 1,000 signatures were collected in three days, representations by myself and local campaigner Stuart Long at planning meetings, a campaign ale brewed by the local Ridgeside Brewery – a lot of hard work that may have not been necessary if consultation was compulsory.

Would a change in planning laws have saved the Albion in Armley, used as a model for Hornby railways, or the Mabgate, beloved of both policeman and pastor alike? Could, or indeed should, we still be drinking in the Market Tavern, known to many as the Madhouse? Who knows, but this new legislation would at least mean that the community would be consulted, at least historic and architectural interest would be taken into consideration and maybe this will stop the homogenisation of our high streets.

So pubs are under threat and to me that means our very way or life, our “Britishness”. It’s a real “use them or lose them” situation. Fight for this legislation now before another property boom comes upon us. I love my local and certainly don’t think Carol Ann Duffy’s poem would sound the same if you changed the pub names for those of your nearest supermarket or pawnbroker:

I saw him festively, when people sang for victory, for love and New Year’s Eve,

In the Raven and the Bird in Hand, the Golden Eagle, the Kingfisher, the Dove.

I saw him grieve and mourn, a shadow at the bar, in the Falcon, the Marsh Harrier,

The Sparrowhawk, the Barn Owl, Cuckoo, Heron, Nightingale.

A pint of bitter in the Jenny Wren for my Green Man, alone, forlorn, John Barleycorn.

Sam Parker is vice chairman of Leeds CAMRA and member of the British Guild of Beer Writers.