Dorset rural communities are lucky to have a pub or a village shop, but many have neither. With the Lockdown expected to end soon it is time to take stock. Village shops have universally boomed in the last year thanks to fear of contracting the virus from supermarkets, but pubs have suffered badly. We support both as they are the beating hearts of our rural communities. With climate change an ever increasing concern, we also support them as their success can reduce car dependency. Dorset Council claims that reducing car dependency is a key objective in their draft Local Plan, not that their fine words were matched by much actionable strategy.
Our current concern is for pubs. The number has shrunk, falling by about 2% p.a. nationally since 2010, hit particularly by fierce supermarket price-cutting, tighter drink-driving laws and reduced alcohol consumption. Pubs have had to adapt, with wet-led pubs having to become food-led. The declining trend had been worst in the towns, such as Weymouth, but less severe in rural Dorset. However Covid-19 hit all pubs drastically, so that nationally the number fell by about 5% in 2020. Many have been surviving by offering take-aways, which may pay some of the staff but no more, as the profits are made on drink sales.
Most pubs were praying for help in the Budget, which offered some support. However most UK pub bosses were “disappointed”. They question the restarting of business rates from the end of June, and only a six month extension of the full reduction of the VAT rate to 5%. Many rural pubs do not have the large gardens needed to erect the marquees that were a feature last summer, so cannot fully benefit from the resumption of outdoor service from 12th April. Even so the majority will probably open from this date. Steve Dunk from the Milton Arms in Winterborne Whitechurch, which serves delicious simple pub grub, says “we have been just hanging on” and hopes to reopen from the 12th even though he cannot protect clients fully from the elements outside. Indoor service will only resume from the 17th May.
One trend we fully approve has been the opening of village shops by pubs during Lockdown, although a number tried initially but found them unviable. The Greyhound in Winterborne Kingston opened an attractive one, as did the Rose & Crown in Longburton. Both intend keeping them going. If any pubs do not reopen this spring, we hope that communities will take advantage of the £150m provision in the Budget for Community Ownership.
Please revisit our pubs as soon as possible after the 12th, but do not desert village shops once Lockdown is over. Remember both are the beating hearts of our rural communities.
Rupert Hardy, Chairman, North Dorset CPRE