Clive Lewis: ‘We must act now to save our pubs’
- Credit: Archant
I have a conflicting relationship with alcohol.
Personally, I love a tipple. Attending this year's Norwich City of Ale Beer Festival launch, I was reminded (painfully, the next morning) just how much.
I think sensibly enjoyed, alcohol is a fantastic social lubricant. And I'm not alone in this assessment. There's now a growing school of academic thought suggesting alcohol production and civilisation go hand in hand.
All over the world evidence for alcohol production from all kinds of crops is showing up, dating to near the dawn of civilization. It seems drink has fired our creativity and fostered the development of language and the arts.
Having said that, try telling city residents who live near Prince of Wales Road this story on a Saturday night and you may find their 'language development' somewhat expletive laden.
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But binge-drinking aside, as the scientific evidence accumulates at just how harmful even relatively moderate amounts can be, it seems many are beginning to re-evaluate their relationship to it. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), last year saw the number of Britons who regularly drink reach a 12-year low. How far this correlates to an increasing public awareness of the health implications of drink is at present unclear.
Health concerns could also be one of the many already known reasons why the number of people using pubs – that great, historic staple of British social life – is also on the decline. Across Britain, pubs are shutting at an alarming rate of 23 a week. And Norwich, famous for having a pub for every day of the year, is not immune to this trend.
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Understanding exactly why this is happening is critical. Economic contributions aside, pubs are important social hubs in urban as well as rural communities. That's why the Labour Party is committed to establishing a national review of pubs to examine the causes of their large-scale demise, and a joint taskforce to examine their future sustainability.
But many of our pubs need help now. That's why in opposition we've successfully amended government legislation to prevent local pubs being demolished or converted without planning permission. Labour is committed to going further in power and will make all pubs Assets of Community Value (ACVs). A landlord or corporate pub chain would then be required by law to notify local authorities before closing or selling their pub. The local community would then be given six weeks to express an interest in purchasing the pub. This would then put the sale on hold for six months, giving the community a chance to raise funds and put in a bid for ownership.
Meanwhile the government's policy of extending business rate relief to pubs with a rateable value of less than £100,000, while welcome, has not been as successful as was promised by chancellor Philip Hammond last year. He pledged the policy would help 90pc of pubs but the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) believe it has only benefited around 75pc. That's why Labour would also lower business rate rises by switching from the Retail Price Index (RPI), to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), ensuring inflationary price rises were lower. In addition, we'd extend the business rate relief scheme to small music venues as well.
But this alone won't stem the weakening of our community spaces. Norwich's libraries are also under imminent threat of closure by Norfolk's Conservative County Council as part of a £125 million cuts package. In total 478 libraries have closed nationally since the Conservatives took power in 2010, and it appears Norfolk's will be next in the firing line. When Tory and Liberal Democrat politicians told us that austerity was a necessarily evil, they neglected to mention it would come at the cost of our libraries and so much more.
Whether pub, library, bank or post-office closures, something seems to be all too frequently being ripped out of our communities. It would be too simple to lay it all at the door of recent government spending cuts and policies. They've certainly contributed but they don't account for the sheer scale of the change taking place. True, rapidly advancing technology is playing its part. That's why Labour would modernise libraries to help promote digital literacy and access, while still valuing the traditional role books play in educating and enriching our lives. But again, technological change is only part of this jigsaw enigma.
Much of this decline comes down to the kind of economy we now live in. One that puts profitability above all other considerations. It's a system that knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Perhaps now is the time to rekindle the values of community, collectivity and social solidarity and apply them to a contemporary, 21st Century setting. That is the political challenge for my party. And if we can pull-it off, I for one will drink to it.