YORK is proud of its history and rightly so. Yet away from the visitors’ gaze, it has taken its eye of the ball.

While showing off the city-centre jewels, our leaders are neglecting the living social history in the suburbs.

England’s pubs are at the centre of a perfect storm, owned by bloated or ailing businesses and coveted by retail giants desperate to extend their reach. An eager seller meets a ready buyer, and we residents can like it or lump it.

The Press's Be Vocal For Your Local campaign calls for local people to be given a say on their locals' fate. Make no mistake, we are not calling for all pubs to be wrapped in cotton wool and given preferential treatment. This is no nostalgic, ideological crusade against change. All we say is that community public houses dating back generations should not be closed without a community discussion as to whether that is desirable.

Some will say with trite insouciance that the communities have already spoken; that by not frequenting a pub more often, the neighbourhood has silently okayed its removal.

This is a fallacy, built on a naive assumption that the pubs in question have always been run well but that despite everyone’s valiant efforts, they have run out of steam. The truth is very different, as Paul Crossman set out in meticulous detail in these pages last week. Many pubs have been run from afar with little imagination or visible drive, catapulted into their current plight not despite their owners but by them.

Have pubcos called last orders prematurely in many cases?

Should we shrug and allow those responsible to cash in and close a pub that slid downhill on their watch? Or should we take their wails with a pinch of salt and say that if they can’t make a pub work then someone else should at least be given the chance, before the doors are shut for ever?

You need only wander around York to see pubs that evidently confounded the minds of the pub companies but which were not, in fact, lost causes. Take The Phoenix in George Street, for instance. A few years ago it looked unloved and beleaguered. Marston’s Brewery, the owners, closed it in 2008, saying it had received “absolutely no support” from the community.

Within a year, it had been sold at auction and reopened as a freehouse, and today it is thriving as one of York’s finest pubs, boasting a handsome interior, regular jazz music for a dedicated clientele, several beer festivals a year and a bar billiards team.

The Phoenix was down on its luck in 2008 (above) but is now thriving, with good beer, live music and a bar billiards team (below)

Or head to The Volunteer Arms in Holgate. Punch Taverns, a corporate giant that owns thousands of pubs, declared this one unviable in 2011, citing plummeting trade. Councillors narrowly opposed its conversion to houses, and instead Paul Crossman and Jon Farrow, who already ran The Swan and The Slip Inn, bought the pub and proved Punch spectacularly wrong. The Volly is now home to a darts team, regular live music, excellent beer and a weekly quiz – a welcoming hub at the heart of its community.

The flawed nature of our planning law is such that while Punch needed to seek permission to turn the pub into housing, had they wanted to turn the pub into a shop, nobody could have stopped them, irrespective of community preference. That loophole must be closed.

>>> FLASHBACK: Even viable pubs are closing - we must fight, by Paul Crossman

 

Sure, not all pubs can be saved as The Phoenix and Volunteer Arms were. Drinking habits have changed and demographic, legislative and culture changes mean demand for pubs is not what it once was.

The decline of heavy industry has removed a once-reliable clientele from many pubs. Britain’s above-average alcohol taxes, the smoking ban and bargain-basement supermarket deals have all hit the industry, and in compact York the city-centre sucks trade away from the suburbs and villages.

Some pubs, inevitably, will come to be seen as victims of changing circumstances. But such assessments should be made sensibly by the community, not suddenly by discredited property giants seeking to undo the damage of their past misjudgments. 

Public houses have been an integral part of English life for centuries; many remain cornerstones of their neighbourhoods. If local people want to save a pub, their voice should be heard. Likewise, if they are glad to see the back of a pub, they should have the chance to say so.

>>> FLASHBACK: We launch campaign to give locals a say on pub closures

Fundamentally, as much as possible, it should be local people who decide the nature of their neighbourhood.

Politicians today are forever telling us that they want local people to have a say. The Big Society. Community Conversations. “Consultations” by the bucket-load. Locally and nationally, we are told our opinions matter.

Now is a chance for the Government and City of York Council to prove it by using the tools they have and amending the law to ensure that closures are not rushed through on the say-so of corporate bean counters in company head offices, but debated and decided locally.

Article 4 protection is an easy way for York's leaders to quickly give locals a say. Wandsworth has already led the way. It is time for York to do the same.