Beating hearts of our rural communities, crucial social hubs, a solution to isolation and loneliness, lifelines for the elderly and fundamental facilities to the social fabric of communities.

Expectations of the humble village pub are huge.

For decades, we took them for granted as enduring fixtures of the rural landscape.

But since Covid about 1,000 of those hearts have stopped beating, forced to close by spiralling overheads, dwindling customers navigating their own overheads crisis despite hard work by landlords to adapt their pubs to fulfil multi-faceted roles to remain relevant. 

As loneliness escalates to epidemic levels, sketchy public transport is making villages ore isolated than ever and rocketing second home ownership in Norfolk and Suffolk villages erodes community cohesion, pubs are more fundamental to the fabric of our rural counties than ever.

2024 needs to be the year when saving the great British pub becomes a national priority. 

A closed pub rings the death knell for a community’s vibrancy and unity. We need a Minister for Pubs to take this disease seriously. 

Tomorrow, my favourite village pub for 20 years, the White Horse at Upton, near Acle, relaunches as the next chapter of its story of survival unfolds.

Norfolk’s first community run pub was taken over by White Horse Development Trust in 2012 to prevent its closure after decades run by one landlord, Ray ‘Winkle’ Norman.

It’s a corker. Warm, welcoming, bus, where locals mix with visitors happy to travel for their Sunday lunch and the quiz and theme nights are packed. 

With its back story of East End gangster regulars and a visit from the King told in pictures in its busy bar it looks every inch a success story.

It was heaving when I was last there on Boxing Day. But appearances are deceiving.

Overheads and a poor weather summer had pushed it over the edge.

In November a group was set up to save it as its future looked uncertain. Volunteers have given it a spruce-up as a £25,000 appeal to keep it open during the next business quarter has been launched with new directors and chairman.

Miles away in Necton, near Swaffham, the community is taking its first steps to reopen its closed pub, The Windmill,

It’s not for the faint-hearted.  Directors and volunteers need support, not least from the government. 

A minister for pubs would coordinate a cross-government taskforce and help with tax and regulation alongside an emergency fund for energy bill support with business rates rebates for pubs that take on socially valuable roles like warm spaces and foodbanks.

According to Localis in its report last year, Inn-Valuable – unlocking the socioeconomic potential of our nation’s pubs, pubs support 936,000 jobs, generate £28bn in GVA to the economy and delivers £15bn in tax revenues to the Exchequer.

We can all do our bit and support during January, the worst month in a publican’s calendar.

And be patient. A smile, a chat, a bowl of soup and a drink goes a long way for that person behind the bar desperately trying to make it work.

Honours system now needs a rethink

The skulduggery and shadiness of the country’s honours system has been under the spotlight again.

A woman honoured for doing a job she was handsomely paid for, reigned over arguably the biggest scandal of our time, handed back her CBE after more than a million people signed a petition.

Then came calls to knight the Post Office scandal hero, Alan Bates, who had already turned down an OBE while Paula Vennels kept her CBE.

He seems like the type who is unbothered by gongs.

Justice for all postmasters affected and those responsible brought to book would be reward enough.

Awards should be for people like Mr Bates; those who dedicated their lives to others voluntarily through activism or individual acts of heroism.

Not for doing a paid job. 

Arguably an even more urgent reform is the honours themselves, scrapping any reference to Britain’s uncomfortable imperial past that means so many turn down the honours that glorify a past that caused harm and trauma.

Retaining ‘empire’ in the honours is an unnecessary relic of a colonial legacy. 

When Benjamin Zephaniah, who died last month, rejected an OBE in 2003, he wrote in the Guardian that the word empire “reminds of thousands of years of brutality”.

Why would anyone want an award that glorifies so much hurt? 

The first black footballer to break through into the Liverpool team in the 1980s Howard Gayle turned down an MBE for his community work with the anti-racism group Kick It Out.

“We’ve got a long history in colonialism and slavery and we’ve never, ever been thought of as a culture deserving of an apology for what was done to us and to our ancestors,” he said.

Author and columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown sent back her MBE because “it stuck in my throat,” 

“Anybody who knows anything knows that that history will never be over in the United Kingdom. It’s in the blood and we’ve seen it all rise up again after Brexit. For all sorts of reasons, I should never have taken it.,” she said.

Yet, when a select committee suggested Empire was changed to Excellence 20 years ago it was too much for traditionalists.

Now, it’s too much to bear for too many.