Last week’s Booze on the Ouse real ale festival saw hundreds pour into St Neots for a pint – yet one in 10 Huntingdonshire pubs is closed. Here, PAUL MOORHOUSE, publicity officer for the Huntingdonshire branch of CAMRA put his case – and concerns – for the Great British pub.

NEARLY all real ale is sold in pubs.

So CAMRA regards pubs as vital for real ale. For CAMRA, with its growing membership of nearly 120,000, campaigning for pubs is a key activity.

Fifteen pubs within the Huntingdonshire area are currently closed – around one in 10. Some of these, such as the Falcon in Huntingdon and the Tavern on the Green in Abbotsley, have been closed and unused for years.

The Wheatsheaf at Eaton Socon and the Longbow at Sapley closed last year. Some pubs are on the property market either as going concerns or for alternative uses, but the future for many is unknown.

Huntingdonshire District Council has refused planning permission to change the White Hart at Bythorn into homes, and the Globe in St Neots is expected to reopen soon as a pub and restaurant, but at Somersham the Black Bull is to become a shop and the Merry Boys in Eynesbury is proposed for demolition and replacement by a housing development.

CAMRA is lobbying for changes in the law so that local authorities and communities have more control over the fate of pub buildings. Planning permission is not needed to convert a pub into a shop, restaurant, estate agent, hairdressers or a host of other uses.

The Black Bull in St Ives, the Angel in St Neots and the Harrier in Brampton have all been converted to restaurants in this way over recent years, and the Hardwicke Arms at Gamlingay became the most recent example last year.

In some cases pubs can be demolished without planning permission. In other cases pub companies are placing restrictive covenants to prevent buildings being used as pubs after sale in order to deny potential competitors.

Pub operators are expressing concern at ever-increasing pressures on the viability of some pubs. Increasing alcohol taxes, the smoking ban, competition from supermarkets, alternative entertainments and changes to lifestyles are all having an impact.

In St Neots, national pub group Wetherspoons opened a large new pub last December – the impact of this on the remaining pubs in St Neots is yet to be seen.

CAMRA is talking to pub operators to encourage a wider choice of interesting real ales in their pubs. Trading agreements can restrict access to many pubs for small local brewers, but real ale drinkers tend to lead groups of friends to particular pubs, so a range of interesting real ales can boost trade in other drinks and food.

Last week, CAMRA's 'Booze on the Ouse' real ale festival in St Neots demonstrated the power of this market.

Nearly 1,200 visitors flooded into the festival over the three-day event and drank around 3,800 pints of real ales in 14 different styles, and 400 pints of real draught cider.

CAMRA hopes that pub companies respond to this undeniable demand, allow their pubs to stock more locally-brewed real ales and ciders and perhaps see a boost in their fortunes.