There is a well-spun political myth that the Conservatives are the party for business. As a small business owner, I know that this is not the case. The way that small tenant pub operators, like me, are being treated shows fully the problems that we have faced for years from a lack of independent representation of our needs and unfair practices by big brewers and large pub companies. There is a lack of transparency over which have helped tenants, and which have not. This lack of representation is now set to have real public health and safety ramifications, loss of livelihoods and undue stress and mental health crises.
The Labour Party has an historic opportunity now to prove that it is on the side of thousands of business owners, it can represent us, and it can support innovation and enterprise. Many small businesses like mine have been doing the right thing and protecting our customers and staff. But we face insolvency because we have behaved well. We need help to rebuild and representation against big landlords in the hospitality sector and government.
I have been in touch with hundreds of pub owners, who are telling me that they feel pressured to open when they don’t think that it is safe to do so. Social distancing measures are not easy to police when people have had a drink, and we take our obligations seriously. There will be customers who will have to wait in queues – it will be difficult, if not impossible, to control that system, and we need to know that there will be back up. I have also spoken to paramedics who are worried about what will happen if we allow pubs to open without proper controls in place as they don’t have the capacity to treat people.
A lot of pub businesses are tenancies. We pay money to pub companies and breweries in rent and also money, called a tie, so we only buy our beer from our landlords at increased prices. We have been deserted by the government to deal with rent negotiations after some of the off-hand comments made by Rishi Sunak left us in a dubious situation over the purpose for the grant money offered by the government. Many of us have had grant money forced from us by the large pub companies, even though we needed the money for bills and top up staff pay.
After lockdown is lifted, we will be even more beholden to these companies. We will be forced to open as soon as we are able, and we are already being told to make plans for July 4th. If we don’t, then we will face financial penalties. If we decide that we can’t have a viable business and want to leave, then we will face financial penalties. For many of us it will also mean losing our homes. We are already carrying a lot of debt – we will be zombie businesses.
We are not optimistic that support will come from environmental health officers as there is a historic unsupportive and fractious relationship. There is not enough capacity for these officers to assist us in opening; instead we will be forced to open with liabilities and the threat of penalties hanging over us. We must be given assurances that there will be adequate support from public health bodies and licensing authorities, and that we will not shoulder all of the risk and all of the blame if it goes wrong.
Along with other pub tenants, who have the day-to-day experience of how to make a pub work and be safe, I have prepared a list of concerns and questions over how we can open safely. I will be sending them to the shadow cabinet. We offer our help and assistance in making sure that we can get back to the pub safely and with the proper financial and legal help in place.
Current government priorities – to ignore the science and get us back to work – are set to leave thousands of small pub operators penniless. The government would love to have an independence day celebration with pubs opening on July 4th, but that is ignoring the fact that we will not be viable under any social distancing measures. The brewers want all the pubs to open as they will sell more beer; they show no concern that they will be forcing people into unprofitable businesses laden with debt.
Pub owners have been deliberately shut out of negotiations with the government and left to fend for ourselves. We are now being left to clear up the mess that the government has made in controlling the virus. We need an independent voice, and only the Labour Party can make that happen.