Boss of seven Suffolk pubs – including Butt and Oyster – says industry needs more help

The Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill Picture: ARCHANT

The Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

The owner of Deben Inns, which runs a string of well-known pubs in Suffolk, says he fears for the future of the industry unless the Government provides more support during the Covid-19 crisis.

Steve and Louise Lomas
at the Coach and Horses pub in Melton in 2011 Picture: ARCHANT

Steve and Louise Lomas at the Coach and Horses pub in Melton in 2011 Picture: ARCHANT

The firm operates seven pubs including the Grade II listed Butt and Oyster at Pin Mil, but just two qualify for the government’s discretionary fund to help business ratepayers with fixed property costs.

Company owner Steve Lomas said the government’s plans to support businesses like bars, restaurants and pubs during lockdown did not go far enough – and that the industry needed clear guidance on how it can viably operate when the time comes to reopen.

Mr Lomas successfully applied for grant funding for two pubs – the Ship Inn, at Levington, and the Fox Inn, at Newbourne – but was almost resigned to the fact he would not meet the criteria for five of the pubs, which have rateable values in excess of £51,000.

‘Inept and shambolic’ government response

The Coach & Horses pub in Melton

The Coach & Horses pub in Melton

Babergh District Council was the first local authority to turn an application down for the Butt and Oyster – and Mr Lomas anticipates the same response for four other pubs in the East Suffolk District Council area.

In response, Mr Lomas wrote: “That’s another nail in the coffin of 40 jobs and the potential long-standing business”, going on to describe the government’s response to the hospitality industry as “inept, shambolic and utterly hopeless” following a promising start at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Discretionary Grant Fund supports businesses occupying property with a rateable value, or annual mortgage or rent of up to £51,000.

‘Tough decisions’

Mr Lomas said: “I pretty much knew five of our pubs wouldn’t meet the criteria but I applied because the fund is discretionary.

“Thousands of pubs are being affected by this arbitrary figure. It’s by no means limited to just ours.

“With furlough being wound down and no clear guidance on how to reopen, it’s really causing us tough decisions.

“We were forced to close on March 21 and we’ve had no income since. We’re well in excess of £2m down in revenue.”

Mr Lomas has been able to secure a mortgage holiday on the one freehouse in the company’s portfolio – and has been given rent holidays on two other pubs tied to Adnams and Enterprise Inns.

Deben Inns has opened the Butt and Oyster and the riverside Maybush Inn, at Waldringfield, for takeaway orders and removed eight of 151 staff from furlough.

Another key issue for Mr Lomas is how his pubs will be able to effectively operate when able to reopen as part of the third phase of lockdown easing from July 4.

‘Squeezed the longer it goes on’

The British Beer and Pub Association has said only a third of the UK’s pubs will be able to reopen under the government’s general two-metre social distancing guideline, but that two thirds could reopen and enable more pub staff to return to work under the World Health Organization’s recommended distance of at least one metre.

Mr Lomas said: “Unless we get clear guidance, we can’t meaningfully prepare to reopen.

“There’s a minefield of things to consider around things like toilet facilities and protective screens.

“At the moment, we’re just holding station and taking advantage of the business interruption loan scheme – but we have to pay that back, of course.

“We’re relying on loans and reserves, which are being squeezed the longer it goes on.

“We’re basically keeping our heads above water because of a problem none of which was our doing.”

Mr Lomas is backing the #RaisetheBar campaign to lobby government to lift the threshold from a rateable value of £51,000 to £150,000 for businesses to receive the £25,000 grant.

What has the Government done?

The government ordered the closure of bars, restaurants and pubs on March 20.

It has since put in place measures to help mitigate the impact of lockdown on small businesses, including job retention scheme grants for paying furloughed staff, VAT deferral for the next quarter, hardship loans, mortgage and rent breaks, and a statutory sick pay rebate scheme.

The Discretionary Grant Fund supports businesses occupying property with a rateable value, or annual mortgage or rent of up to £51,000. Local authorities have discretion about how to prioritise funding and may disburse grants of up to £25,000.

The fund provides £617m for small businesses not eligible for existing support in the form of the Small Business Grants Fund (SBGF) and the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grants Fund (RHLGF).

It provided a 5% increase to £12.33bn funding previously announced for SBGF and RHLGF.

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