Amid the proliferation of fast-casual concepts and new bar brands, the plight of the humble rural pub is often overlooked. Almost 2,000 have closed in five years and they now number less than 20,000. Jonathan Paveley, executive chairman at Admiral Taverns, considers why. When asked to write an article on the forces shaping the future of rural village pubs I immediately recalled the surprise I felt when joining Greene King in 1996 and becoming chairman of Hook Norton in 2009. I am a proud Devonian, man and boy, and moved back to my home village six years ago after 20 years of exile for various roles. As such I am used to the fact that most west country villages have lost their pubs, often over 40 years ago: of the five villages in our local benefice only one retains its pub (an Enterprise tenancy). When I moved to Suffolk in the mid-1990s I was surprised to see that almost every village still retained its pub. I was equally surprised to see that almost all villages in the Cotswolds surrounding Hook Norton still retain one or more pubs. And yet ostensibly, Devon villages are no smaller, more isolated or farming dependent that those of East Anglia or the Cotswolds, so why the difference and can anything be learnt from it regarding future rural pub survival? I believe it illustrates some of the underlying causes of pub closure. The first clear difference between the differing Devonian and Cotswold/East Anglian village pub is the survival of local regional breweries. Devon lost its regional breweries by the 1970s, their village pubs were sold as freehouses and, without a local integrated brewer to sustain them, these small village freehouses made way for homes. Unlike Devon, the Cotswolds and East Anglia still have regional breweries, which have been more reticent to close pubs unless they are utterly hopeless. So it is clear that regional breweries (and frequently pub companies) have been a vital ingredient in sustaining many village pubs which would otherwise have closed if they were free-houses. But this is not the only difference contributing to the divergence in regional patterns. There are other much deeper forces at work which will, if unchecked, force even very supportive owners to abandon many village pubs. Firstly, all three regions discussed are popular destinations for tourism, second home owners and retirees from the large conurbations and the south-east in particular. This is where I will say some things that may offend, but they need to be said: most incoming second homers and retirees are a disaster for rural villages. They don’t support the schools, pubs, churches, shops, post offices or other village communal institutions anything like the locals do. Why not when surely they are buying into a “village idyll”? Largely because, and this applies especially to incoming middle class professionals, their previous urban/suburban lives have not socialised them to value mixing habitually with people of other backgrounds and, after a brief flirtation with a few village institutions, they sink back to treating village life as a kind of low-density socially segregated suburbia, where one has little to do with ones’ neighbours. Strangely, the welcome exceptions tend to be skilled working-class retirees from the cities who are used to mixing cheek-by-jowl with people from other backgrounds and who often turn out to be some of the most active supporters of pubs, churches and so on. This “social cleansing” of the Devon village is accentuated because incomers drive up house prices beyond the reach of all but a few fortunate locals like myself, who are prepared to work away for long periods of each week to earn a salary that enables them to buy a house in their village. So in the course of less than two generations the social composition of many villages has been silently and radically altered to the detriment of pubs. Unfortunately these forces are also now visibly at work in areas like the Cotswolds and East Anglia, which had previously been more resistant. Both have been assisted by a greater commuter population, which means that more working age families have been able to afford village life, but house prices have now risen so far in these areas, particularly the Cotswolds, in the last 10-15 years that these communities are now being “socially cleansed” and deadened by wealthy, ageing urbanites. So we are now seeing previously viable pubs in small villages closing for this very reason despite ownership by supportive regional brewers (and pub companies) as a consequence. Increasingly the example of the Devon village pub’s fate is spreading elsewhere. There are other forces at work shaping the viability of village pubs, one of which is drink driving legislation, or more accurately its rigorous enforcement. I am in no way condoning breaking the drink driving limit and it has been rigorously enforced in Devon since the 1980s, but it has clearly impacted on village pubs. When I first joined Hook Norton, I was struck by one of the locals saying the “police don’t enforce drink driving here unless you crash” and people still felt able to go out to have two or three pints which might or might not break the law. In the last couple of years the police have changed their approach, with police cars waiting outside pubs at closing time. This has meant drinkers have become much more risk averse and may only drink a single pint when going out, rather than two or three, or more frequently stay in to drink at home. Becoming a food-driven pub may save some, but not every village can support a gastro-pub: their cost structures mean that they need much bigger catchment areas and there is too little disposable income to support more than a small number across many villages. Finally, another lethal factor is escalating rates and utility bills. Rural rate relief is illogically applied and many pubs that deserve it get little help, while many rural pubs, which tend to be picturesque old buildings are very expensive to heat and maintain. Indeed, I know of more and more pubs where the rent is less than the annual utilities bill and both numbers are headed in opposite directions. So will the usual proffered solutions, which seem to revolve around making it very difficult to get change-of-use planning on village pubs, make a difference? Unfortunately not. They will just result in more pubs lingering longer or closing until the planners finally give in, and the longer some pubs take to leave the market, the more potentially salvageable pubs they will drag down with them as demand is spread too thinly and fewer pubs can afford to maintain the property or pay the bills. As we so often see, politicians, pressure groups and the media are unwilling to face up to the real insidious causes of a problem such as this. “Pub is the hub” is a nice idea, but impracticable for most publicans, whose working day is already long enough. Broader rural rate relief would help at the margins, as would a planning framework that accepted more village pubs need to go in order to underpin more potential survivors. But most importantly, and intractably, rural “social cleansing” needs to be addressed. Building more “affordable homes” will help at the margins if they are reserved for genuinely local people (but they tend not to be and there are some horror stories of urban “social dumping”), but this is only a stop gap if the other forces continue to work through. Furthermore, if one keeps in-building between villages they soon will not be rural communities anymore and really will turn into soulless lower density suburbia, and that would be a tragedy that future generations would never forgive. This article first appeared in the Zolfo Cooper Leisure Wallet