Brigid Simmonds: Let’s toast the health of our embattled beers

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BREWING beer is a traditional British industry – but it also a vital part of our modern economy.

Along with pubs, it has a rich regional heritage, with the beer supply chain – from grain to glass – playing a vital role in providing nearly 19,000 jobs in rural parts of Yorkshire and the Humber. From barley growers, to maltings, breweries and pubs, this vital supply chain adds around £350m every year to Yorkshire’s rural economy.

A whirlwind tour of Yorkshire makes the point. Most beer is made from barley. As a crop suited to a northern climate, this makes Yorkshire a great county for barley growing. It is part of a rural way of life that goes back centuries, one which has shaped and maintained the beautiful landscape that draws visitors to the county from around the world.

Barley is turned into malt by renowned maltsters like Fawcetts and Muntons, with their state-of-the-art maltings at Flamborough, on the East Yorkshire coast. The Yorkshire Dales are surrounded by brewers, like Theakston, Timothy Taylor, and Black Sheep, who use these natural ingredients to make their renowned beers. In Tadcaster, there is the famous John Smith’s.

Britain’s favourite beer, Carling, prides itself on being made from 100 per cent British barley, with Yorkshire farms a key source. Beer is also vital to Yorkshire’s pubs, 1,100 of which are in rural areas, providing vital local jobs.

With beer so deeply embedded in the economy of Yorkshire, our national focus is rightly about realising the growth potential of our rural communities. At the British Beer & Pub Association, we have teamed up with the National Farmers Union (NFU) to champion the case for investment in the right policy and regulatory framework for farming, beer and pubs.

Our “Grain To glass” initiative has been launched with cross-Party support in Parliament. Joined by Agriculture Minister Jim Paice and Shadow Environment Secretary (and Wakefield MP) Mary Creagh, we set out an action plan of measures to support barley growers, brewers and pubs.

We need to ensure the economy gets the best out of this home-grown success story. NFU President Peter Kendall made a passionate defence of British beer as we launched our joint campaign. He knows that backing beer is good news for Yorkshire farmers.

In asking the Government to create a favourable environment, the growing elephant in the room is the critical issue of taxation. Beer Tax has increased by 35 per cent since March 2008. Nationally, more than 4,000 pubs have closed in the past two years alone. Beer tax now accounts for around 50 per cent of total brewing turnover.

There has certainly been no “beer bailout” for Yorkshire breweries – beer drinkers enjoying a pint in a Leeds pub now pay 11 times more tax on beer than their German counterparts in the city’s twin town of Dortmund. This is unsustainable, and hugely damaging to Yorkshire’s economy.

There is much we can all do to help the rural economy in Yorkshire – even in these cash-strapped times. To coin a slightly well-worn phrase – we are all in this together.

Tourism and hospitality in Yorkshire simply wouldn’t work without pubs. We want to see support for VisitEngland in marketing rural tourist destinations like the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors because great pubs, with great beer, are a vital part of local tourism economy.

With the growth of the “staycation”, this is more important than ever – especially as we look ahead to what promises to be a great year of celebration in 2012.

We need the Government to recognise the importance of all these economic links to beer – not least because brewing is a home grown industry, where 87 per cent of the beer we drink is made in Britain – very often from natural ingredients grown on British farms. Beer exports are also doing well, and the range and quality of our beers is resulting in a growing reputation around the world.

When it comes to regulation, we also need a lighter regime. Regulators should only intervene when necessary, as excessive regulation imposes huge costs on farmers, brewers and publicans. We need a more flexible planning system, one which allows business to diversity and expand. We can do this while still protecting our rural heritage.

Local councils should be encouraged to support community pubs, recognising the vital role they play in rural communities. This could be through rate relief, helping with access to finance initiatives, and business planning advice.

The brewing and pub sector can be a catalyst for economic growth and increased earnings through agriculture, manufacturing and retailing. For every one new brewery job we have the capacity to create many additional jobs in the beer supply chain. From Grain to Glass, beer is a great British success story and can only continue with the right taxation and regulatory regime that better supports business growth.