Over the last week, I have tried to keep myself upbeat and started planning ahead. Living above a closed business that is usually full of people has been no fun, but with no other choice I have tried to keep busy. I therefore watched the spending review statement while putting up the Christmas decorations in the pub, in the hope that I will get some customers in to see them. I think Rudolf may as well stay in the box.
Despite all the bluster about from the Tory benches about supporting entrepreneurship, there was nothing in the statement that will give people trying to run a business any Christmas cheer. There was very little in the statement itself about support for businesses and their owners. In answers to questions, Rishi Sunak claimed that the grants pubs have had will cover the rent. Along with many other pub owners, I can assure him that is not the case.
My grant this time has been only £1,334, not the £3,000 that the Chancellor stated. It does not cover rent, let alone the other costs that I have to cover, including making a contribution to the furlough of staff who are all still on the payroll since March. The level of grants available must be made to match our actual outgoing costs, not the outdated and broken business rates system. Labour should be pressing for this to help us and the jobs that we are supporting; this is a point that seems to be lost on the government.
I found out on Thursday that we have been placed in Tier 2. I’m now planning various scenarios of shortened hours and to cost a plate of a substantial pasty with a side salad. This is, again, on extremely short notice and still with no clarity over what support I’m likely to get and what the rent costs will be. I’ve already had to take a gamble and order some cask ales, despite having no idea whether I’ll get to serve them. The only chance I have of survival is to reduce all my costs and wastage. This haphazard approach is now defining all the government does and it is hurting businesses that are living on a knife edge.
Pub owners are feeling scapegoated and angry. We had to collect customer details when Track and Trace was not working, some pubs even taking it upon themselves to contact their customers when they have heard of a positive Covid-19 case. We have spent millions collectively on measures to provide a clean environment with no help from local environmental health officers. We’ve even stepped in to feed the homeless and our communities’ children when the government has refused. All we ask for is the scientific evidence that the measures that single us out will have an impact on the spread of the virus and that we are not forced to go into more debt while we wait for long-term solutions.
The support that has been given to hospitality up to now has promoted large venues that serve food, while small pubs serving drink are disproportionately affected by the downturn in trade. The VAT cut has only been for food, and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ actually saw takings in some pubs go down. The support has not gone to the small pubs on our high streets and in villages that have had the biggest decrease in capacity. To top it off, the government has chosen to allow people to travel and mix for five days over Christmas. We will be in half empty venues, not being able to break even, but we will have to pay for the consequences of stricter measures in January.
Screaming at the TV at the inconsistency and injustice of it won’t help thousands like me stuck in businesses that are running down the clock to insolvency. There are important issues that can help us now. Tenants, like me, are campaigning for fair treatment by the companies that own the pubs through the review of the Pubs Code. The legislation is not working for us and there are unfair business practices. We have been denied a review of our rents and we are having to deal with the pub companies individually under a voluntary code of practice. This is an area where Labour could make a meaningful contribution towards safeguarding our livelihoods.
The businesses that are now facing permanent closure are those that have been at the heart of our communities for centuries. As a pub landlady, I have befriended, consoled and listened. Running a pub takes long hours of work – the times that make it worth it are when we have a pub full of people laughing. I was pleased to offer free kids’ meals during half-term because we had in families having fun.
If we are going to be able to recover and heal after the immediate crisis is over, we must look to our communities and the local economies. This means not pitting private sector against public, but making sure that all of us have a decent standard of living and that businesses that are part of our local economies are able to open again and flourish. To get to that glorious day when we can all raise a glass and hug our friends in a beer garden, we are going to need Santa to bring us some presents – because Rishi hasn’t.