The Bar Man, January 9, 2015: Being small getting big

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There was a time when education was about more than ticking boxes and league tables of exam results. When I was at school I spent a couple of hours a week in the sixth form studying topics unconnected with my exams and some of these have made a greater impression on me than stuff like the rocks of the Ordovician.

Whilst still being fascinated by topology (see the Konigsberg bridge problem and Harry Beck’s London Underground map), it was environmental studies that made the biggest impression.

It was the time of the oil crisis and the power cuts of the three-day week, and we were being told that the world’s oil reserves would be exhausted by the 1990s. It was also the year of the publication of Small is Beautiful, by EF Schumacher, a selection of essays that championed small-scale enterprises and technology.

In the years that have passed, it seems that neither of these ideas has proved to be correct. We are more dependent on oil than ever, and wherever you look, small scale enterprises are being replaced by larger competitors.

Shops, cafes, hospitals, schools, post offices; watch as the small ones close and larger ones, often owned by multinational corporations, take over.

But maybe Schumacher is finally being proved correct. There are now around 1,300 breweries in the UK, more than anytime since the 1930s and the excellent website Beermad lists 31 that have opened in the last month alone, including All Day Brewing at Reepham in Norfolk.

There is no doubt that one of the main reasons for this is the progressive beer duty introduced by then Chancellor Gordon Brown in 2002, where producers pay a lower rate of duty on the first 60,000 litres of production per year. It does makes one wonder if this success could not be replicated in other industries, with lower taxes on small cafes, manufacturers or pubs.

Even without these incentives, pubs are beginning to join the party. Just when it seemed that the only pubs able to survive would be the Wetherspoon-type enterprise, serving cheap beer and food to masses of people in converted cinemas or swimming baths, along comes the micropub. According to the Micropub association this is ‘a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks’. The original example is the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent which opened in 2005, but there are now about 70 listed as members of the association including the Railway Arms on Downham Station and the Liberty Bell at Ely.

Interestingly, 28 of them are in Kent and many of the others are in the South East, so it seems that the concept has been very successful there and is beginning to spread. Other than the Railway Arms, I have only visited a couple, one in Leeds and one in Chesterfield. Both were converted shops, and with the number that are lying empty in our town centres it makes sense to bring them back to life as pubs.

It looks like an idea whose time has finally come and there are plenty of empty premises in and around Lynn.