Hospitality is going to be in trouble in the absence of support - Jayne Dowle

A startling fact may have escaped your notice, but I learned last week that for the first time since records began, there are now less than a million licensed premises in Britain.

The number of pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes selling alcohol has decreased by almost a third (31 per cent) over the last 20 years, meaning 44,000 net closures since 2003.

This is equivalent to six such businesses folding every day, according to research undertaken by CGA (Curren Goden Associates), a hospitality data agency. There are now just 99,916 licensed premises in Britain, with many others worried that they might not even make it to Christmas.

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It’s a shocking state of affairs made very real here in Barnsley on October 23, with the closure of popular town centre food and cocktails location, The Salt House, and its sister establishment, Black and White, a wine bar, when the local council took possession.

A man drinking a pint of beer in a pub. PIC: Johnny Green/PA WireA man drinking a pint of beer in a pub. PIC: Johnny Green/PA Wire
A man drinking a pint of beer in a pub. PIC: Johnny Green/PA Wire

Reportedly this was because the firm behind both venues had failed to meet its lease and rental obligations. The council said, in a statement, there are ‘substantial unpaid rents of over £100,000 across the leases for both premises’.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Monday morning this shock blow fell, almost the whole town was talking about the predicament that The Salt House, proudly billed as ‘Barnsley’s newest immersive bar and restaurant’, found itself in.

Weekends certainly, it was always packed to the rafters from early afternoon, with all ages, family parties, groups of female friends.

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It was always a welcoming and stylish place where I’d take visitors to Barnsley, who would customarily find all those hoary old cliches about pints and pies and flat caps falling away in the face of plates of tapas and porn star martinis.

It felt good, it felt progressive, and now it feels very worrying indeed. Jobs lost. A huge empty gap in the street scene. And no guarantees over what might happen next.

Owners, including local Liberal Democrat councillor Mat Crisp, pitched into a spirited defence, and in a statement issued through The Salt House’s Facebook page, said, “we fully respect the position of overdue rent arrears with BMBC (Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council), however the current economic climate has sadly made it very difficult to trade in hospitality.”

Talks to reach a solution amenable to both sides appear to be continuing, but meanwhile, Barnsley is left with a huge hole in its much-lauded £210.6m Glassworks scheme, which has brought huge interest to the town through retailers, a new market, bars and restaurants.

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I feel very sad that The Salthouse has closed, and sad too for other Barnsley hospitality businesses, including another bar, Opium, which announced closure last week, and all the other establishments around our region which are contemplating a terrifying winter of discontent when they should be gearing up for what used to be the busiest time of year.

For many, unless there is an immediate Christmas economic miracle, they fear that their businesses will end up joining the thousands already forced to close.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) national chairman Nik Antona told hospitality trade press The Morning Advertiser that CGA’s figures “lay bare the mountain firms are being forced to climb” amid ongoing cost-of-living crisis: “Under the sheer weight of escalating costs, uncertainty over sky high energy bills in the next year and unjust business rates, many simply can no longer afford to continue this uphill battle.”

As The Salt House owners also said in their statement, “we have traded through the harshest times hospitality has ever faced”.

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Hospitality industry voices are rightly angry at what they argue is disinterest, even neglect, from the government, and are urging Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to address the situation in the upcoming Autumn Statement.

“The Government and the Chancellor's persistent focus on reducing inflation through long-term strategies, despite the lack of tangible results, will inevitably impact a General Election due to the perceived ignorance on their part,” says Night-Time Industries Association (NTIA) CEO Michael Kill.

“We are running out of time, and the feeling of being disregarded is taking its toll.”

Labour, meanwhile, has not had much to say. Surely picking up the hospitality trade baton would be an open goal, bolstering support in urban areas and helping the party reach out to rural constituencies diminished by the loss of their local pubs.