Oxford pubs under threat as re-opening gets closer

As we count down the days until April 12, how many pubs will actually re-open then?

It is now just over two weeks to wait until pubs can re-open outside space on Monday, April 12, with indoor space due to re-open on May 17 according to the Government’s “road map”. This is a time of great anticipation but also some trepidation, as we wait to see whether any more of our pubs remain closed as some have done since the first lockdown in March 2020.

As previously reported not only here but in media outlets all over the world, the Lamb & Flag remains closed while owner St John’s College considers its options with several expressions of interest in running it as a pub that we are aware of. An uncertain future also hangs over two more city centre pubs, while others may be looking for new tenants as some people running pubs have decided to cut their losses.

The Mitre on Oxford’s High Street, parts of which date from the 13th century

Oxford’s oldest pub, the Mitre on the High Street, looks set to remain closed although owner Lincoln College has completed a costly upgrade to student accommodation on the upper floors. The ground floor, which used to include a back bar for drinkers and an extensive restaurant, was leased to Marston’s which was non-committal when asked for an opening date by the Oxford Mail. A spokesperson for Marston’s said only that “options in regards to the pub and its re-opening are being reviewed” and that “I appreciate these are limited details at this stage.”

This is disappointing, but symptomatic of the very uncertain outlook for pubs and restaurants even when they are permitted to trade. We hope that whatever becomes of it, the historical features will remain and there will still be room for a pub where drinkers are welcome, as well as a restaurant.

Wetherspoon’s Penny Black in Bicester makes a promise. The Swan and Castle in Oxford also re-opens that day but not the Four Candles, William Morris, the Company of Weavers or the Narrows

Another pub with an uncertain future is the Wheatsheaf, in an alley off the High Street, as the building’s owners have proposed closing the upstairs function room which is the city centre’s last remaining music venue, and converting it into student accommodation. This has caused a huge backlash from music fans and promoters, and while there appear to be no plans to close the ground floor as a pub, it’s difficult to see what kind of pub that would be without music. The Wheatsheaf is much loved as a rough-and-ready pub with bar games and no food served, but could it become yet another gastro pub or simply a restaurant?

CAMRA member Rob Walters (see his video post here) is one of the objectors to any change of use, saying: “Granting any change of use for the Wheatsheaf will seriously deplete central Oxford’s cultural richness. Student accommodation should never displace popular and viable businesses in the city centre. Such changes of use clearly attenuate the attractiveness of our vibrant city and, let’s face it, student accommodation adds nothing to that vibrancy and can be suitably placed elsewhere.”

Whether any other pubs fail to re-open in April or May will become clear in the coming weeks, but those most at risk are “wet-led” pubs that serve little or no food, that haven’t benefited from some of the support offered to pubs in the Budget earlier this month. The Budget was broadly welcomed by CAMRA and the pubs industry, but the temporary cut in VAT was not extended to alcohol and applies only to food, soft drinks and accommodation.

National chairman Nik Antona says: “CAMRA believes this VAT cut should be extended to alcohol so that traditional locals that don’t serve food can benefit too. The extension of furlough until September and new grants of up to £18,000 are very welcome. However, pubs are unlikely to be able to fully re-open at pre-Covid trading levels due to outside space and then table service only indoors restrictions. The beer and pubs sector will need further support over the coming months, over and above new loans, to help them get back on their feet until there is a full and proper re-opening and they can trade at full capacity.”

A welcome and unexpected boost in the Budget was the creation of a fund to help communities buy their own pub, meaning that successful applicants will receive match funding of up to £250,000 to complete a purchase. There are already nine community-owned pubs in the county, and Graham Shelton, chair of the Oxfordshire Community-Owned Pubs Network, welcomed this move.

The community-owned Red Lion in Northmoor, near Witney

Hailing the Budget’s support for pubs generally, including re-opening grants, he said: “No doubt some tenancies will become vacant after such an extended period of stop-start trading and a very weak Christmas period, so communities may be thinking about whether they should buy their local. If so, designating the building as an Asset of Community Value is essential. The Community Ownership Fund, at £150 million, offers a real help towards raising the money, with individual grants up to £250,000 promised if match-funded. Let’s hope it doesn’t distort the market too much.

“Social Investments Tax Relief will be helpful for those putting money into such new ventures, but I understand this is only available to investors who operate the pub business and not available to those who merely own the building in which the business operates.”

We certainly can’t accuse the Government of ignoring pubs, although many would say they have been the scapegoats while no sustained and credible evidence has ever been produced to identify them as a major source of Covid infections. Whether that support proves enough will be seen in the coming months, when anyone who cares for pubs’ future should use them or risk losing them.