It is wonderful to have an excuse to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Pub is the Hub. Many of you may know how all this came about. I had heard about the problems facing rural pubs in particular - the numbers of pubs that were being shut down all round the country.
About six years ago I remember visiting a brewery in St Austell in Cornwall. And in my little speech at the end I happened to say what we really need is to make the pub the hub. I could not understand how this rolled off my tongue! It was then picked up to my amazement by a tabloid newspaper. Then we found the wonderful John Longdon and that is how the whole campaign was born.
I felt then, and I still do, that rural communities face unprecedented changes and challenges, and the local pub which has been part of village life for centuries is under particular threat. It can also play an important role in providing those essential services that people who don’t live in rural areas perhaps don’t always appreciate are absolutely crucial. We are fortunate now that instead of six rural pubs closing a week we now have three.
I understand that the situation is even worse in urban areas with 10 closing a week - although some of them are re-opening again in some other guise as a restaurant or a gastro pub - which I have just discovered and am told may be threatening the future of pub darts which is rather worrying! I was given these the other day (holds up darts) and I’m getting rather good at darts. My youngest son is a great deal better than I am – I’ll let you guess why! I’m doing my best to keep the darts tradition going!
The objective of the campaign is something I hope most of you are aware of. I do believe that with some encouragement a new sense of rural enterprise could be created which might begin to make an impact on this problem. It seems to me that we need to liberate the determination that exists in so many communities around the country to find new ways, new and innovative ways, to maintain services and help overcome the hurdles of bureaucracy, complicated regulations or the lack of seed corn funding. And that is why, as President of Business in the Community, I launched the “Pub is the Hub” initiative back in 2001 as part of our overall Rural Action campaign.
But if someone had told me then that five years on we would have nearly three hundred projects, including over one hundred Post Offices, eighty shops and thirty computer training centres - let alone eighteen community-owned pubs - I simply would never have believed them. The fact that we do is, largely, due to one man, John Longden, who understood immediately what I was trying to do. Now we have John very nearly full-time, along with a national steering panel, four regional advisory groups and seventy volunteers who give advice all around the country. All I can say is that we could not do without each and every one of you because the demand for “Pub is the Hub’s” service is growing massively.
Some of you might wonder why you have been chosen to be here. The reason is that, for various reasons, you are all “Pub is the Hub” heroes and heroines. Some of you are hard-working licensees - the impact you make within your communities by the support you give to rural services is totally invaluable.
Then you have the brewing companies, drink and pub groups like Diageo, Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns, Scottish and Newcastle and Marstons - all of these have been absolutely crucial to our success. And I really just wanted to take the opportunity to express my warmest gratitude for all their contribution.
And I particularly want to welcome the representatives of the Post Office, who have been incredibly helpful right from the start. With all the uncertainties that now exist around the rural post office network, the “Pub is the Hub” initiative, and the Post Office’s support for it, could not be more important. If the villages which are about to lose a Post Office could instead see it incorporated into the local pub, it could make the whole difference…
Some of you may have heard that some communities have saved their pubs by buying them, and I am very pleased that here today we have eighteen of these pioneering pubs. Their feat of organization is truly remarkable. We have also had great support from public bodies who have been marvellous allies in what we have been trying to do, and we owe a particular debt to the East Midlands Development Agency and Cumbria County Council. And I am delighted that the National Assembly of Wales has now asked to work with “Pub is the Hub” to see how pubs in Wales can support rural services.
I have so enjoyed the opportunity to pop into one or two of your pubs over the last few years and I intend, I promise you, to visit some more, if the good Lord allows me. And also to have a go at some of your darts boards! I was amazed to find out that I had been awarded Beer Drinker of the Year in 2002 by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group – it must be because they were endlessly seeing photographs of me in some newspaper or another of me drinking! I am very glad to see that we have here today Mr John Grogan M.P. and Mr Robert Humphreys, the Chairman and the Secretary of the group.
All I really wanted to do was to say a huge thank you to all of you for the huge amount of support and enthusiasm that you contribute to all this in terms of what you’re doing to maintain those really crucial services to so many people who live in rural areas. The difficulty I always think in life is how you balance the need for efficiency with the need for the human and social dimension – that balance is absolutely crucial, particularly in binding rural communities together and making them as special and as unique as they are in this country of ours.