Your questions answered
Pubs have been closing across Britain for many years. Around 10,000 disappeared in the decade before the pandemic. Cultural change and supermarket competition have cut the number of pub goers, but the closure of a pub often means losing a valued social hub. 1,000 more have closed in the last 3 months, with customers staying home and staff hard to find.
Brains at one time operated 250 pubs, but this had shrunk to around 200 at the beginning of last year, and just before covid hit it announced a plan to close another 40. Its sale of Roath Park Pub to a developer who wishes to demolish it for flats has generated protests.
Late last year, Brains agreed to hand over running its pubs to Marston’s. It was reported that the pub business comprised a freehold estate of 86 managed and 55 tenanted pubs, plus a leasehold estate of 15 managed outlets, making a total of 156. Marston’s would operate the 141 freehold pubs on leasehold from February 2021, most on agreements for 25 years, with annual rent of £5.5m charged from April 2021. It would operate the 15 short-leasehold sites on a management contract basis for a period of two years.
A few of those pubs may already have been closed or otherwise disposed of. It has since been reported that Marston’s took over 147 pubs, of which it will run 99 under a long-term lease, while 8 are freehold. 30 pubs will run on an 18-month lease and could be sold off, while another 10 leasehold pubs will be run for two years.
The transfer was presented as saving jobs, with about 1,300 people then employed in the pub business transferring across to Marston’s. But since taking over, Marston’s has asked managers at 19 pubs to sign up to a franchise deal, which would change their status to self-employed. The legitimacy of this has been challenged by Kevin Brennan MP, Rhys Ab Owen MS and the Pub Advisory Service, as Marston’s would still direct their work but avoid tax and employment obligations. Jobs in Brain’s support centre will also go.
Since the deal with Marston’s, Brains has already sold a few of its pub buildings. It now wishes to sell a package of 99 pubs for an asking price of £87.3m. These appear to be the pubs which Marston’s is running under a long-term lease, with Marston’s paying its rent to the new owner rather than to Brain’s. In itself this should not lead to the closure of pubs.
But while Marston’s has declared that it wishes to run these sites (plus the 8 freehold sites) long-term, will that last for 25 years? And it has made no promise for the other 40 pubs.
What will happen to the Brains brewery in Splott is uncertain. This has only been open since 2019, when the old one closed to make way for the Capital Quay development. It stopped operating for a time when pubs were locked down. Management declared all options were open, including selling the brewery or closing it, with Brains beer being brewed elsewhere, perhaps outside Wales. The brewery is now operating again but its future remains unclear.
This is not just about beer. Threatened pubs are often treasured local buildings. Affordable spaces to socialise are ever harder to find, and online interaction is no real substitute. The decline of an iconic Welsh business indicates an underlying malaise in our economy. We need to turn our brains to thinking of alternatives which put people and community first.