Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What's happened to your local?

Posted by Mark McGivern, Specialty Registrar in Public Health, Balance

[Editor's note: this post was first published by Balance. Thanks for letting us repost it here.]

I was recently undertaking some research on behalf of Balance into the volume of alcohol promotions in supermarkets. Whilst doing this that I stumbled upon another interesting area which led me to do some further investigative work into the locations of some of these shops.

The Turnpike in Westerhope, before and after
My original research involved visiting 48 of the 90 convenience stores operated by Tesco and Sainsbury’s across the region. As I was going from store to store I realised that many appeared to be buildings that, in previous lives, were once pubs. It was apparent just by looking at some of these shops that they used to be pubs but others weren’t quite as easy to spot due to extensive renovation work and extensions being added to the original building.

My interest was already piqued and so I decided to take to the computer to do some online investigation. By locating each site on Google maps and looking at historic photographs my suspicions were confirmed at seven of the stores I visited. While that may only be around 15%, I’m certain that number would grow if I were to visit the remainder of the 90 stores in the region.

The seven stores I identified as converted pubs were:

• The Honeysuckle, Coatsworth Road, Gateshead - now a Tesco Express

• The Broadway, North Shields - now a Sainsbury’s Local

• The Turnpike, Westerhope - now a Tesco Express

• The Black Horse Inn, Windy Nook - now a Tesco Express

• The Station Hotel, Seaton Carew - now a Sainsbury’s Local

• The Lodge, Neville’s Cross - now a Sainsbury’s Local

• The Black Swan, Morpeth - now a Sainsbury’s Local

The Black Swan in Morpeth, before and after
It feels strange, as a member of the public health community, to be advocating to save pubs. However, this is a wider problem, with two key issues. Firstly, communities need to feel like they are being listened to when it comes to decisions being made in their villages, towns and cities. Secondly, it’s about the fact that supermarkets make cheap booze more readily available, increasing competition and making it difficult for small community pubs to compete. 

Pubs used to be not just a place for drinking, but for socialising with friends and family. In terms of local history, some of them also used to be impressive local buildings too, which have now been anonymised by the standard, uniformity of the supermarkets branding.

It’s no secret that community pubs up and down the country have suffered in recent times, but this latest trend has resulted in questions being asked of the current law which allows supermarkets to convert pubs without the need to apply for a change of use.

With such loose laws around these types of premises it’s no surprise that former pubs – that were likely once hubs of their communities – are seen as such appealing opportunities for supermarket giants.

CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) has spoken out against the loophole and called on government to amend the law so communities can have a greater say in whether local pubs can be converted into these types of convenience stores.

Labour appeared to have listened to these calls and earlier this year shadow small business minister, Toby Perkins, said he wanted to see local authorities and communities involved in the decision making process over planning decisions that centre around pub conversions.

These types of discussions can only be a good thing. It’s important for the issue of local decision making to be addressed at a high level, particularly with party conference season on the horizon and an upcoming general election. However, it’s also important to link it to the wider issues around price and availability of alcohol, particularly the cheap, strong alcohol. Alcohol is 61% more affordable today than it was in 1980 and measures such as minimum unit pricing would not affect sales or prices within local pubs, but would save lives, reduce crime and help cut the £21 billion that alcohol misuse costs the UK each year.

I’m sure there will be many more instances of pubs being converted into convenience stores throughout the region that I haven’t picked up on. If you’re aware of any then next time you’re out and about take a picture of the shop in question and send it to us with details of the location to info@balancenortheast.co.uk or tweet it to @BalanceNE.

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