The Slip, in Clementhorpe, York, has been a pub since the 1840s. It was here when the road outside was a slipway for shipbuilders on the River Ouse and the land behind was a Terry’s confectionery factory, and it is here today, surrounded not by industry but by housing.
The pub could so easily have been lost, however. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it passed from one property conglomerate to another, in a series of mass sales. When it came up for sale again in 2008, locals were anxious. At the time, 52 pubs a week were closing nationwide and many were being snapped up to be turned into housing. The Slip had been struggling and looked vulnerable.
I already ran another pub nearby, The Swan. I could see the potential of The Slip, so my friend Jon Farrow and I bought it and, ten years ago this week, we began work on our vision to make it what a community pub can and should be. Jon sadly passed away in 2017, but tonight he will be in all our hearts as we celebrate ten years of pub freedom and ten years as a community stronghold.
Pubs are fundamental to the cohesion of British society. They’re the last social meeting place for many neighbourhoods, and a place where community thrives and relationships blossom. And yet the fortunes of a pub depend entirely on the freehold ownership of the building and the motivation of that owner. A company with shareholders’ needs will treat it very differently from an independent owner who comes with a sense of stewardship and community.
At the heart of the problem lies the ‘beer tie’. This system allows companies that own pub buildings to choose which products can be sold there, and to act as intermediary wholesalers, rigidly restricting beer choice and forcing licensees to buy through them at higher prices than in the free trade. It is bad news for small breweries and bad news for ambitious licensees. It has been heavily criticised by four successive business select committees, but although it came under some statutory regulation with the implementation of the Pubs Code in 2016, the code has been only loosely enforced and the tie remains a millstone around publicans’ necks.
The Slip had become absolutely typical of a tied pub. It was passed from company to company, and after each sale the long-standing tenant was given different restrictions on what she could sell, sometimes forced to buy beer that she knew would not sell well. By 2008, the pub had been starved of investment for years, and was not even close to realising its potential.
Today, the pub is free and its potential has been unleashed. Our bar manager Ian Warner sources and sells a wide range of beers from local or independent breweries and we have been able to invest in the pub, opening up more rooms, improving facilities for customers and staff, adding an outdoor space and creating a new beer cellar fit for purpose. Our success and popularity means we can contribute fully to the local culture and economy now, and like all thriving pubs we are doing good work socially, helping bring people together, tackling loneliness and isolation and providing and maintaining an essential additional space.
The Slip is now safe forever, and I am looking into placing a covenant on the building to say it can’t be subject to a supply tie again, putting it out of reach of the big pub property companies. The turnaround is hugely satisfying for us, but it is bittersweet, because the beer tie remains in place all over the country. Thousands of other pubs in Yorkshire and beyond remain hamstrung and hindered by the same flawed systems that once held back The Slip.
We urgently need politicians to grasp the problems facing the industry, and to act. Enforcement of the pub code has been weak. The business, enterprise and industrial strategy committee of MPs should seek a full competitions and markets inquiry in the beer and pub sector, giving particular attention to the impact of the beer tie.
MPs of all parties have long paid lip service to pubs, but Parliament urgently needs to act in a meaningful way. We need a fundamental restructure of the rules that govern the industry, and we need the free market-extolling Government to stop supporting a closed market. Every pub should be given the same chance as The Slip has had.
Paul Crossman is owner of The Slip Inn, in York, and is on the steering group of the British Pub Confederation.