By Mark Hookham
WEST Yorkshire pubs that are “centres of the community” could enjoy lower business rates under proposals being examined by the Government.
Ministers are also looking at beefing up planning rules to prevent former pub buildings being so easily bulldozed.
But they denied that rising beer tax is responsible for the mounting number of pub closures – a clear hint that Chancellor Alistair Darling is unlikely to scrap planned increases in next month’s Budget.
New figures published by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group last week revealed more than 50 pubs have closed across Leeds, Kirklees and Wakefield in four years. Dewsbury and Wakefield were worst hit, with each losing nine since June 2005. Leeds Central lost eight and Pontefract and Castleford seven.
Following publication of these figures, a 200-strong meeting in Westminster questioned five ministers on the crisis.
John Healey, the local government minister, said he was exploring business rate relief for “centres of the community”, adding: “There is some mileage in that.”
Hinting at changes in planning rules, Mr Healey said they “need to take into account the importance of premises to the community when planning decisions are made.”
But treasury minister Angela Eagle said pubs had been declining for more than 25 years because of “changing leisure patterns”. She rejected calls for lower alcohol tax for pubs compared to supermarkets, saying it would be illegal under EU law.
Licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe said planned action includes simplifying minor changes to licences and helping pubs stay open when the licence holder dies.
There is currently 50 per cent business rate relief for rural pubs which are the sole licensed premises in their village. Mr Healey’s proposal would allow tax discounts for pubs in larger towns and cities.
Selby MP John Grogan, the chair of the parliamentary beer group, said: “I am very encouraged by that.”