Photo by Ewan Murno
Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, November 8, 2013
One of the best things about where I live is – or was – the pub, the Alma , in whose lovely Dickensian bay windows candles could always be seen flickering on dark winter nights. The Alma has - or had - good beer, a thing for cider, and excellent food (homemade sausage rolls on the bar); it has also won several awards. But it wasn't, in the end, these things that made it special. Much more important was that it was so well loved, not only by east London hipsters in their drainpipe jeans, but by local groups who used its quirky bar and tiny garden for meetings. It was that rare thing: a city pub where the landlady knew her regulars' names. Walk by of a morning and she'd wave, flashing the requisite number of fingers to remind you she opened promptly at four.
Kirsty Valentine was a pioneer when she took over the Alma a decade ago; the area was shabby at the edges, its pubs intimidating. But she invested in her kitchen, and hired good staff, so that when gentrification began, she was ready, her lamb shanks simmering in the pot (though this is still a mixed area, and all the better for it). Other pubs followed her example: the Snooty Fox, the Edinburgh Cellars, Dissenting Academy. Did this affect her takings? For a while, yes. This year, however, sales of food and drink rose some 10%. Until last week, she was planning Christmas. On the menu: rock oysters, turkey with all the trimmings, poached pears and ginger sorbet. Yours for £24.
Things should have been good. Kirsty liked her job, and she loved the Alma, her home as well as her business. In fact, today, she has just been evicted, having lost a long legal battle with her partner at the Alma, a pub-owning company (known in the industry as a pubco) called Enterprise Inns. Bailiffs arrived and, soon after, the police - called for no reason that those local people gathered peacefully outside to support her could fathom. The dispute started when her rent began to rise, a situation that made life very difficult, particularly given that her lease also compelled her to buy all her beer through Enterprise - a clause which limited the range she could sell, and cost her significantly more than it might have done if she had been able to purchase direct from the brewer.
The pubcos are a legacy of the early 1990s, when the government legislated to break what it saw as the breweries' cartel. Most breweries sold their inns to companies such as Enterprise and its competitor, Punchbowl Taverns.
You'd think that Enterprise might have wanted to support one of its more successful landlords. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case (though its PR company insists to me that Enterprise has done everything it can "to reach a compromise with Ms Valentine"). Kirsty Valentine isn't alone; across the country, many other tenants find themselves in a similar position. Between 2008 and 2012, Enterprise and Punchbowl disposed of some 5,000 pubs.
A few of these were, I'm sure, failing. But others were as successful as the Alma; to know this, you only need to look at those whose landlords, often supported by their local communities, managed to buy them. They are thriving. Unfortunately, a thriving pub is perhaps not, these days, half so useful to Enterprise as an empty one. Enterprise had a total net debt of £2.5bn as of September this year. Pub buildings, particularly in prime London locations, are worth an awful lot. Property developers snap them up; so, too, do supermarkets. For a company like Enterprise, moreover, this is a win-win situation. The establishments it owns nearby can simply Hoover up any newly pub-less customers.
What happens next? Enterprise insists it is "absolutely committed" to running the Alma as a pub; it just wants a different tenant. But those who know about these things are pessimistic. The beer writer, Pete Brown, thinks the writing is on the wall, given that it's hard to imagine any other landlord being more successful than Valentine. Still, let us not give up quite yet. A petition has been launched, calling for the Alma to be recognised by the council as an Asset of Community Value under the Localism Act; if granted, this would give the local community time to mount a bid for the pub if Enterprise were to walk away. Meanwhile, locals are doing what you must do, too, should you be in a similar position. We are acting on our anger, which is considerable. We are writing to our local councillors, to our MP, and to Vince Cable, the business secretary, who urgently needs to tackle the pubcos. We are very well aware that 26 pubs close every week, and we don't want the Alma to be one of them. It's quite bad enough seeing it as it is today, forlorn and empty, its only occupants a series of burly-looking men in fluorescent coats.