A local difficulty as drinkers get call to arms to save their pubs

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A new campaign is trying to encourage more people to support their local pubs. Chris Bond reports.

ON Sunday, I popped into The Regent, a popular north Leeds watering hole, to catch up with some friends.

This used to be one of my old stamping grounds back in the day, although until the weekend I hadn’t set foot inside it for at least 12 months. But a couple of hours (and a few pints of Leeds Pale ale) later I was reminded why a visit to the pub used to be a weekly ritual – friendly service, well-kept ales and a decent atmosphere.

It’s the kind of experience that Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale, is looking to highlight as it launches its Community Pubs Month – a national campaign to encourage more people to use their local. In Yorkshire, more than 430 pubs have signed up to take part in the campaign which aims to help pubs promote their events and attract more customers. It coincides with a study, carried out by Camra, showing that more than a third of adults in the UK say their local community uses a pub for family events such as weddings, christenings and funerals. Despite this support, the traditional British pub is fast becoming an endangered species.

It is estimated that 16 pubs are closing each week in the UK on average and that 4,500 have called time since 2008, all of which makes for pretty depressing reading.

But Mike Benner, Camra’s chief executive, says they remain an integral part of British life.

“Pubs are the beating hearts of countless communities across the land, and without their existence, society would be a lot worse off.

“Pubs are the original social networking sites and will continue to provide an invaluable community service as long as they are used by the local people that surround them.”

Although some pubs are doing well, there are many more that are struggling and in the past decade they have had to contend with the smoking ban and increasing competition from the big supermarkets, who are able to undercut them on price. Jon Howard, Camra’s press manager, admits that times are tough for a lot of them at the moment.

“They’ve been hit hard by rising beer tax in the last couple of years. We now have the second highest beer tax in the EU and the combined cost of beer tax and VAT on a pint is more than £1,” he says.

Which means a pint is a lot more expensive than it used to be.

“People are more inclined to drink at home now because it’s more affordable. Prices have increased a lot more in pubs in the last 10 years than they have in supermarkets and in the current economic climate not as many people can afford to go out,” he says. “Pubs in rural and suburban areas have been worst affected while those in the city centre aren’t closing at quite as fast a rate.”

So how can they attract new customers? “They can’t afford big marketing campaigns so we are trying to help by giving a bit of free PR, but they can make people aware of what’s going on through word of mouth and by using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.”

There is a feeling among some people that traditional ale houses are dying out in favour of swanky, so-called gastro pubs where they serve food with a “jus”, rather than a gravy. But Howard disagrees.

“There are still some great heritage pubs in places like Leeds and Sheffield and there is enough room for old and new styles of pubs. There’s also a growing number of exciting, smaller breweries and there are now more of these than at any time since the Second World War, especially in Yorkshire which has over 100.”

For many Britons, the pub is just as important as cafes are to the French and Spanish.

“It’s where we go to meet our friends, it’s where we go after weddings, funerals and family birthdays, they’re an important part of our everyday lives and it would have a disastrous effect if we lost these places.”

Community pubs month

More than 430 pubs in Yorkshire are taking part in Camra’s campaign, highlights include:

The Captain Cook Inn, in Staithes, North Yorkshire, is holding a St George and English Heritage Beer and Beef Festival from April 19 to April 23.

The Anglers Rest, Wombwell, South Yorkshire, is organising a “bake off sale” beginning on Saturday to raise funds for Help for Heroes.

The Old Cock, Otley, is hosting a Battle of the Beauty Spots beer festival from Friday to next Monday, pitting Yorkshire Dales and Lake District ales against each other.

The New Inn, Wilsden, West Yorkshire, is holding a Titanic Centenary Night on April 14, with fancy dress and fundraising for the RNLI.