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Pubs toasted as anchors of rural communities

While the number of pubs throughout Britain and Northern Ireland has declined by 25% since 1982, Professor Ignazio Cabras’s research into rural pubs has emphasised their enduring role in fostering community cohesion. The project has given widespread oxygen to the debate on pub closures – in the press, online and on the airwaves – and established the particular circumstances under which pubs are surviving. Impact continues as policymakers use the study to support community action, while findings have also been raised in the House of Lords. 

Throughout the centuries, public houses have been philosophically and literally acknowledged as the natural destination beyond the ‘first place’ of home and ‘second place’ of work. Ignazio Cabras is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Regional Economic Development at Northumbria University, and has led research on the influential project, ‘Third places, community cohesion and economic development: the impact of pubs and beer in the UK’.

The study – funded by the British Academy – focused on UK parishes with no more than 3,000 individuals, situated at least five miles from places with 5,000 residents or more. It focused on 284 different parishes and collected data from Actions with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) and the Office for National Statistics, creating an index measuring community cohesion.

Although pubs located in rural areas have suffered from changes in market structure, higher taxation and the upsurge in off-licence trading, findings from the study determined that the disappearance of public houses is inseparably linked to other institutions and traditions which have drifted away, such as post offices and organised activities.

The research, however, clearly demonstrated stronger community cohesion in parishes that still had pubs. Indeed, it showed that when a pub was present, there were more community events, suggesting that the very existence of a pub promoted local activity, especially when operating in tandem with other ‘third places’ such as village halls.

The research has attracted significant US and UK media attention, notably from the BBC, The Times, The Sunday Times and the Telegraph, increasing awareness exponentially. In addition, Professor Cabras has been interviewed by networks across Europe, in Spain, Iceland, Italy, Germany and Norway. The sector relevant organisations CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and SIBA (Society for Independent Brewers) have also engaged with the research, using it to support their campaigns for financial relief for pubs themselves and to help rural communities protect their local pubs from closure. In particular, CAMRA’s “Saving Your Local Pub” toolkit, which uses Cabras’s research evidence, has helped many communities keep their locals open.

Meanwhile, results from the study have provided a valuable opportunity for policymakers to support their communities and delivering ways in which pubs can be sustained. Prominent Liberal Democrat, Lord Shipley, also raised findings as supportive evidence in the House of Lords during a debate on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, in February 2017.

The significance of the study has led Professor Cabras to deliver speeches at events organised by the Royal Society of Medicine, Royal Society of Statistics and Regional Studies Association, while the extensive reach of the research has been highlighted by regular requests from local communities needing assistance in saving their pubs from closure.

The team have also been invited to replicate the research in the Republic of Ireland, with funds provided by the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI). The resulting report has championed rural pubs and given rise to The Rural Hackney Scheme, an initiative that provides low-cost licences to community groups in rural areas across Ireland.

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