Another pub closes, first of many?

Is closure of the Red Lion in Yarnton the first of many this winter?

Closure of the Red Lion in Yarnton in the middle of August might not, at first sight, seem of great concern to CAMRA members and real ale enthusiasts. While everyone would sympathise with the landlady forced to give up at the end of her tenancy due to falling custom and escalating costs, the closure is symptomatic of the plight facing many pubs.

The landlady, Kerry Osborne, has spoken eloquently of the problems faced by tenants, leaseholders and owner-managers on BBC Radio Oxford, and in the Oxford Mail – telling the latter that the 30% drop in trade caused by Covid had worsened to 50% due to the cost of living squeeze. Customers who would have come in for four or five pints were now having just one or two, and by 8pm the pub might as well close due to the lack of customers. She was also critical of pub owner Admiral Taverns, which plans to invest in the pub but put up the rent. She decided to give up instead and has moved to the Windrush Club in Witney as bar manager.

Here’s a pub that will be much missed by villagers

The Red Lion’s Facebook page shows film of the lights being turned off for the last time under Kerry’s tenure, and it is clear from comments left by customers that she will be greatly missed. The pub ran a foodbank and weekly podcast during the lockdowns to help locals, and as a result was entered for the Great British Pub Awards. It is the only pub in Yarnton itself although the Turnpike Inn is on the A44 roundabout nearby.

Admiral Taverns is now seeking a new tenant, and despite the very bleak outlook for pubs in general there will be no shortage of applicants, if the experience of many pubcos during Covid is anything to go by. Its website states: “The planned refurbishment will bring the Red Lion up to date with a modern fresh feel, whilst remain traditional and at the heart of the local community. The pub will trade as wet-led and be a community space for all to enjoy. The draught drinks range will be extensive and will offer a choice of both national and local real ales.”

It is one of six pubs in the area that Admiral is seeking new tenants for, the others being the Berkshire in Abingdon Road, Oxford; the Golden Ball, in Littlemore; the Crown, in Marcham; the Crown, in Stadhampton; and the Red Lion, in Eynsham. Some of these are former Hawthorn Leisure properties, Hawthorn having been taken over by Admiral.

Other big pubcos are advertising vacancies. Punch Taverns is looking for people to run the Red Lion in Islip, King Alfred’s Head in Wantage and the Three Horseshoes in Thame. Heineken-owned Star Pubs and Bars is looking to re-let the Ampleforth in Risinghurst, Oxford (still being run by a Community-Owned company), the New Inn in Witney, the Woodman in North Leigh (near Witney) and the Royal Sun in Begbroke, on the A44 near Oxford.

Pubs for sale outright – listed on the Daltons Business portal – include the White Lion in Fewcott, near Bicester. Another, un-named pub for sale is described as a free house in an Oxford suburb. Fleurets lists the Chequers in Witney; the Bluebell in Blewbury, near Didcot; and the Pickled Ploughman in Adderbury, near Banbury.

Community ownership has rescued 10 pubs in Oxfordshire, including the Plough at West Hanney

It would seem that hope springs eternal, and another indication of this is that the Bell in Crowmarsh Gifford, near Wallingford, will re-open in September having been closed since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020. The new owners say on Facebook: “The Bell is undergoing a change and will be re-opening on the 19th of September. The Bell has now been gutted. Everything’s gone, we’re left with a blank canvas to build a great community pub for you all. We are looking for our lovely locals to name our specially brewed house cask ale. ‘The Bell Bitter’ just isn’t it.”

We must wish well anyone taking over a pub, but history indicates that many people have regretted it. Once again the pub industry is warning of dire times ahead, with a survey by trade portal the Morning Advertiser finding that 70% of pub operators did not expect to survive the winter without government intervention to solve the energy crisis. Most had seen utility costs double, with some saying the increase was 200 or even 500% — unsustainable for any business. We can only echo what Morning Advertiser editor Ed Bedington says – that action is needed now, not after the Conservatives choose their new leader.

CAMRA too has weighed in, pointing out that escalating energy costs are hitting breweries too. National chairman Nik Antona says: “I’m inviting Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to join me for a drink in their local so we can chat about how our pubs are a force for good in our communities. Whether you drink alcohol or not, they play a valuable role in bringing people together, tackling loneliness and social isolation. Sadly, many pubs which survived the pandemic are now under threat once again from rocketing energy bills and the hugely increased cost of goods, which means many licensees are struggling to turn a profit.”

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The clamour for government action also comes from the British Beer and Pub Association. Chief executive Emma McClarkin says: “Rising energy bills are putting pubs in real jeopardy. Sudden, extreme price hikes are already forcing publicans to make tough choices, from reducing opening hours to cutting options on their menus. We are experiencing a perfect storm that is not only shrinking but eradicating profitability margins. We urgently need an energy price cap for small businesses, before extortionate bills cripple pubs and we lose them forever in communities across the country.” 

Steve Alton, CEO of the British Institute of Innkeeping, adds: The majority of our members are single site operators, running small, independent businesses at the heart of their communities. Without urgent action from Government, these vital spaces for social connection, supporting local jobs, supply chains and community groups, will drown under the weight of the rising cost of doing business.  In many cases, the impact on their businesses is now worse than that of the pandemic, which has already left them with average debts of £40k per pub. The stark reality of the challenges now facing them cannot be underestimated.”

So is the pubs industry being over-dramatic, as a negotiating stance? The autumn and winter months will bring an answer to that. Further government support for businesses as well as individuals is almost certain, but how much and for how long remains to be seen. “Use pubs or risk losing them” is a mantra that is more true than ever now.