With 85 pubs in Wantage and Didcot, the constituency is joint 7th out of 650 for the highest number of pubs in the UK. I discovered this fact whilst preparing to speak in favour of the Business and Planning Bill last week which, amongst other things, will make it much easier for pubs (as well as restaurants and bars) to be able to seat people outside and serve them outside, permissions which can be hard to come by with our existing planning rules.
The purpose of the Bill is to kick-start some sectors that have been particularly badly affected by Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown. The accommodation and food sector saw a 92% economic decline in April, higher than any other sector. Just 14% of businesses in this sector have 6 months or more cash in reserve. They have benefitted from the business grants, business rates holiday and the furlough scheme – 59% of those of those in accommodation and food have furloughed staff in this period.
But no amount of government support can substitute for being able to trade. There is a real risk that a significant number of these businesses – including some of our pubs – could go under if they cannot make up some of the losses, not least as even at 1m+ some premises will struggle to seat enough people inside.
The truth is that pubs have faced challenges for some time – there was a decline of 29% in the number of them between 2010 and 2019. As I said in the debate, this is particularly bad news for rural pubs which are at the heart of their village communities and know their customers sometimes as well as the members of their own family. During the lockdown, pubs were at the heart of our community’s response, with the George and Dragon in Upton delivering essentials to the elderly and vulnerable and the Fox Inn in Denchworth providing everyone with free fish and chips with the support of a couple of benefactors.
From the night of my hustings to be chosen as the Conservative candidate to replace Ed Vaizey – when the shortlisted candidates had to sit in the Red Lion in Faringdon so they couldn’t hear each other’s answers across the street in the Corn Exchange – pubs have featured in some of my best conversations – and meals! – with local residents. We have a huge range of pubs from the Barrington Arms in Shrivenham to the Town Arms in Wallingford – the Extraordinary Hare even has a petting zoo for children. I urge everyone to support their local pubs through this period – whether they drink alcohol or not doesn’t matter – so that all 85 are still here in a year’s time.