Why campaigners still need to keep on protecting pubs

Why campaigners still need to keep on protecting pubs

The story of the Crooked House rightly dominated the headlines last year. The pub, in Himley, near Dudley in the West Midlands, was sold to a developer by Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company in July 2023, ending its 260-year tenure as a public house.

The following month, a fire broke out causing massive damage to the building, which was famous for being “Britain’s wonkiest pub” due to its sloping nature, caused by subsidence. After the fire, the building was demolished by its new owner – later revealed to be ATE Farms Ltd – and reporting from several national outlets provided evidence that the demolition equipment was hired at least one week before the fire took place.

My colleague at What’s Brewing Laura Hadland has kept an in-depth timeline on the incident on her website, which is now being treated as suspected arson by the West Midlands Police. The loss of such a historic pub is a tragedy; the unchecked destruction of not just something physical, but culturally and emotionally significant, now reduced to nothing more than ash, dust and memory.

I have thought about the ongoing case of the Crooked House often since it became headline news. Pubs are essential touchstones within communities and the loss of this one will have no doubt been felt keenly by those who frequented it. That it resonated so much with the general public is significant, but what I felt the national press failed to highlight as a result is how often incidents like this happen, and how many traditional, community focussed pubs like this are closing down, or at severe risk of doing so.

In researching my most recent book, Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars, I developed a close relationship with the pubs in this corner of the North West. But I also knew that in producing a physical guide, the amount of time it would remain accurate would be finite. A couple of venues in the book, the Epicurean in Ancoats and Hatch along Oxford Road, didn’t even survive the amount of time it took for the final draft to come back from the printers. Pi Bar in Altrincham also changed hands, but has thankfully been reborn as the Beacon, and I’m glad to say is still an excellent beer destination.

The closure of one pub since the book's publication has given me particular pause for thought. I included Oldham’s Royal Oak with intention: so much of the book is dedicated to venues that are houses of great beer first, and proper pubs second, and within Oldham venues like the Cob and Coal, and Fox and Pine are representative of this. But I wanted to include a pub that was of Oldham – a true, working-class town, built on the back of proper local pubs. For me, the Royal Oak was the best of them.

The three-storey, Grade II-listed building on Oldham’s Union Street had reportedly served as a public house since 1825. It was previously owned by Robinson’s brewery of Stockport, which sold the site to pub company Inglenook Inns in 2017. Despite the change in ownership, the Royal Oak still carried the family brewer’s beers, including its strong winter warmer, Old Tom, during the colder months.

David Sweeney, the pub’s licensee for the past 16 years was given just two weeks' notice of the sale and was forced to close the pub in early December, ahead of the busy Christmas trading period. The sale was private and reportedly done without Sweeney’s prior knowledge. While the new owner has not been disclosed, technically there is very little it can do to modify the existing building owing to its Grade II-listed status. Although one X (formerly Twitter) user posted on 7 December that people were inside the pub “ripping stuff out”. Add the case of the Crooked House to the mix, and we can see that developers have little regard for the sanctity of such venues, and one can only hope that the law is used effectively to make an example of the people who destroyed this particular pub.

While on a personal level it’s frustrating to see my guide gradually go out of date, more significantly, the closure of the Royal Oak and the nature in which it happened demonstrates the threats facing so many of the UK’s pubs. This is especially so considering how many licensees are likely struggling to turn a profit due to spiralling inflation and costs, and wholesale changes to the alcohol duty system that the industry is still trying to get its head around.

How many more Crooked Houses and Royal Oaks are just around the corner, waiting to happen? How many more licensees will lose their entire livelihoods with just a couple of weeks' notice? And perhaps most importantly, how many local pubs, cherished by the members of the community who use them, are under serious threat of disappearing completely and creating lasting damage to the social structure of said communities?

It’s a new year, and a good time to remind ourselves that events such as the above are not happening in isolation. Campaigners need to be consistent in ensuring that their voices are heard, and that the general public are constantly reminded of both how important pubs are to their communities, and how at risk so many are disappearing completely. By ensuring our voices are heard, we might just give them the window for survival they so desperately need.

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