Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Big Booze versus Big Society

There's a bit of drama in Bury St Edmunds this week. It's all centred on the historic Corn Exchange, a public building used, till now for the odd gig or antique show. Now that our brand new public venue is open it's time to dispose of the Corn Exchange.

There are two bids. One is from a social enterprise called Abbeycroft who want to turn the Corn Exchange into a town-centre play-centre for children and have lots of indepdendent outlets selling stuff. The other is from Wetherspoons who want to turn it into a huge boozer selling pints for one-fifty and all-day breakfasts for a quid.

Amazingly, Abbeycroft is still in the game. It's down to these two and, as I speak, the public debate is going on down there now - the consultation closes today. Wetherspoons have sent in an extravagent bid that promises to restore the Exchange to its former glory. How glorious we'll find their all-day-breakfasts splattered all over our pavements on a Sunday morning I don't know, but they are offering silly money to a council that hasn't got any.

Abbeycroft meanwhile have a secret weapon. Or rather two. One is that they are a spin-out from the Council. They run all our leisure services and enjoy high respect in the area. Even I, a former health-club member, use their spotless facilities and find them to be everything they weren't when part of the council.

The other secret weapon is Norman Tebbit. Yes, the old bastard now lives in Bury and is a totemic figure for the massed-elderly in Bury who love the place how it used to be. Who opposed our new shopping centre (and, yes, it is shite) and who stop every single nightclub application. This cadre of Tory-voting stick-wavers is jab-jabbing away at local councillors. They point to Wetherspoons killing the cafe-culture of the town (true). The threat to other businesses in the town (also true). They get Norman to go apeshit in the local paper about the town becoming the place in West Suffolk to get off your tits for under a tenner (at the moment the yobs stay in Brandon, Thetford and Mildenhall because Bury so dear).

And you know what? I feel grateful Norman and the gang. On this one, they are right. I don't want Bury's traders to be fucked-over by Wetherspoons. I don't want the town to be like Newcastle on a Friday night with fighting and cops everywhere. And I certainly don't want slip in sick when I pick up my Sunday paper. Bury is a nice place - let's keep it so.

In addition, I like the Abbeycroft idea. It's different. It's about people. Let's give it a try.


Martin Cooper said...

At at Big Society event i went to, Oliver Letwin gushed about his local community and independent shops. In my area they are threatened by Tesco. "Big Society not Big Government" but i'm really interested to see whether they are willing to stand up to Big Business in order to make it happen too.

As far as the PubCos go - Weatherspoon's aren't too bad but the constant trail of clone towns in England leaves me cold and this looks like a golden opportunity to keep Bury different.

Great post + come on Abbeycroft!

And i did laugh at slipping in sick as you pick up the Sunday paper.

Edward Harkins said...

Good that your locality has got a Norman Tebbit (but how does he know about where "to get off your tits for under a tenner"?)

The bigger problem is that the planning and other legislation put through by 1980s Conservatives and then the Blair/Brown Government, have all but neutered any scope for a genuine community of interest to object to pubs etc.

Our own local experience on the fringes of Glasgow was when literally the entire community united against an unwanted proposed bookies. Despite a well organised campaign with hundreds of petitioners, we got absolutely nowhere - indeed the sitting (Labour) councillor on the planning committee verged on the hostile in her attitude to the petitioners.

And, "Weatherspoon's aren't too bad"... Ohhh Martin :-) Last time I went into one on a Friday evening there was the usual three deep line of punters waiting to get served; in comes one big guy seemingly unaware of the unspoken protocols when he bawls out 2 pints! Man next time him says "hey I'm waitng first" Big man doesn't understand so bawls back... Barmaid (i.e very young underpaid and overworked person)steps away saying "Whoa - fight among yourselves and I'll serve the winner" (not in a jocular or humourous way, mind you).

Ok I know that the offer is "cheap, but you gets what you pay for", but there's good value for what you pay for, and then there's cheap and that's not for me.

Now, after getting that off my chest I'm off to find other pubs with Norman Tebbitt in them, they seem to be the most interesting :-)