Leaving my pub: I made it through lockdowns but can’t survive the recovery

Dr Liz Hind

This week, I have had to tell people that I will be packing up and leaving my pub. I will leave behind my business, my friends and my home. I made it through the shut downs, just, but I can’t survive the recovery.

I am so very tired. I had a good business, the pub was a happy place, one of the top five rated in the county because of the service and welcome people received. We were a community. It was on the third anniversary, to the day, of taking over the pub that we were forced to close for the first lockdown.

For a while, we believed the hype that we were all in it together. It didn’t last long. The insurance failed to pay out, our landlords were still charging rent, the first grant ran out and the lockdown grew longer. We did what we could, opening up the kitchen for community meals. We put flowers on the table for October half-term meals.

Since we were able to open again in May, I’ve been working seven days a week to try to get things back to where we were. Customer numbers are not back to pre-pandemic levels and they show few signs of improvement. Food deliveries aren’t turning up when they should, and I’ve had to go to five separate suppliers to find someone who will deliver CO2.

The future is not one full of hope. Employers’ National Insurance, fuel costs and food prices are all set to rise, making the tight profit margins even tighter. The cost-of-living crisis will hit us just as harshly as everyone else, and the government has no plan or empathy, only blame for anyone but themselves. There is a long list of problems that businesses are facing, and we have a government that is not up to the challenge. Rishi Sunak’s flagship programmes for business support in the Budget were cheap management courses and half-price deals on software.

Support for small businesses is practically non-existent. I have tried over the last 18 months to get support and advice on public health, licensing, track and trace, rent, furlough payments and more. Few have answered the phone, and many have told me that they won’t help – I’m on my own. SMEs are the backbone of the economy, but we’ve been badly let down.

While I was trying to navigate the rules on furlough payments, commercial tenants were offered a voluntary code of conduct over rent owed during closures. We tried to say that we didn’t want it as we had enough stockpiled toilet paper, but we weren’t given the choice. The result is that we have been left with thousands of pounds of debt, and the promised route to arbitration has failed to materialise.

Without any oversight or pressure to do the right thing, our landlords have been free to discriminate against tenants they don’t like. I’ve spoken to tenants who have been given the choice of accepting an unmanageable debt or returning to a tied agreement that gives over more money to the landlord. If there is no scrutiny or public pressure, they will act as they please and the industry will be changed forever. There is a move to get rid of tenants and replace them with self-employed managers on a share of turnover contract, making running a pub even riskier for those doing the work.

We are facing our own version of fire and rehire – but as we are businesses, not employees, there is little we can do about it. My own tenancy agreement is due for renewal in April and the offer we have for rent would not leave us with any money. There is no loyalty.

I am a working woman, who wants what every other working woman wants. I want some security, access to advice, the right to be rewarded fairly for my work. I’d like to be able to take some time off. I’ve been sexually assaulted at work, reported it to the police and then watched nothing happen. I’ve had to work to keep things going while my husband recovered from injuries and waited five years for an operation on his ankle. I know how badly we’re all suffering because of cuts to healthcare and mental health support. Suggestions that we should turn to family for care before the state are chilling.

A pro-business, pro-worker policy does not have to be a contradiction. There are six million small and medium enterprises in the UK and a further 5.7 million micro-businesses. All of them represent people who are working hard to support themselves and their families. Speeches at our conference were heartening as Labour has some answers: a commitment to scrap business rates and make the system fair was welcome. A focus on the everyday economy is encouraging, too. We just need to make sure that all of the people that make it work are listened to, supported and represented.

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