Rural pubs are closing at an alarming rate

Last orders, please. Image: Getty.

The village pub is a key – even clichéd – feature of rural England. They evoke images of pork scratchings and perilously low beams, frothy pints of warm ale and the summertime knock of willow on leather. They are often described as “friendly” and “homey” and many believe that they foster social relationships among residents, strengthening the level of cohesion in villages and positively contributing to communal well-being. But very few studies have tried to verify scientifically whether this is the case.

In one of my recent studies, funded by the British Academy and published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, I examined communities and parishes with no more than 3,000 individuals, situated at least five miles (or 10 minutes’ drive) from towns or larger parishes of 5,000 inhabitants or more.

Together with Dr Matthew Mount of Leeds University, we collected information from several sources, including Actions with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), to create an index measuring levels of community cohesion and well-being within communities across the English countryside.

We then focused on 284 parishes – and investigated the impact pubs had on community cohesion. Overall, we found that pubs had a positive, statistically significant impact on social engagement and involvement among residents living in the English countryside. We also found that this positive effect increased threefold between 2000 and 2010 (the period we examined) – possibly because pubs have become increasingly important as other essential services such as post offices and village shops have closed.

Our analysis also highlighted that parishes with a pub had more community events – such as sports matches, charity events, and social clubs – than those without or those with just sports or village halls. Simply speaking, opportunities for communal initiatives would be vastly reduced, if not nonexistent, in these parishes without the presence of pubs. But the presence of more than one pub provided no additional benefit. In other words, two pubs don’t lead to a stronger sense of community than one – and may even increase the likelihood of other problems, such as noise.

Our study reaffirms the significant role played by local pubs. But this comes as pub numbers are in rapid decline. Figures released by the British Beer and Pubs Association in 2016 show there are approximately 50,800 pubs open in Britain today – compared with nearly 68,000 in 1982. That’s a decline of 25 per cent while the British population has increased by 14 per cent over the same period. And when judged against the findings of our study, that has to be bad for community cohesion.

A number of factors are responsible for this decline, including a general reduction in customers’ visits to pubs and more competitive alcohol prices in off-licence retailers. In rural areas, this decline has been exacerbated by smaller village populations and fewer public transport options. Some pubs will have closed because they were poorly run, but can we preserve healthy pubs from unnecessary closures?


A dwindling party

One way to help save these vital rural institutions would be to better identify and define “community pubs”. This would help to legislate in favour of those pubs that really are an asset for their community, and to design policies to support these businesses, such as ad-hoc rate relief schemes.

Since 2012, Asset of Community Value (ACV) / Community Right to Buy legislation has given community groups six months to draw up and submit a case to retain a pub. However, if there is no such ACV or preservation order in place, it is still too easy for developers to buy up and convert long-established pub premises. Tougher legislation would help avoid unnecessary closures, and provide a platform for improving planning regulations.

The lack of infrastructure represents another major problem for rural pubs. Public transport is inadequate – especially in the evening – in many rural areas, which hinders the chances of any business relying on the sale of alcohol.

Incentivising local taxi schemes could enhance the attractiveness of pubs and many other businesses geographically spread and not well served by transport routes. The provision of additional financial support by local authorities for new taxi companies would help to keep tariffs down and encourage rural residents to use them more frequently. This would benefit all businesses, including pubs, operating in the local supply chain.

But while the government should support rural pubs, residents must also play their part. It really is a case of use them, or lose them – and once a pub is gone, it may well be gone forever.The Conversation

Ignazio Cabras is professor of entrepreneurship and regional economic development at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”