It has been an oft-quoted statement in recent years that the number of pubs in the country is in decline, and a new report has just come out confirming this is continuing. Changing habits, economic pressures, cheaper alcohol available in supermarkets, pubcos offloading properties, etc. - all these and more have been cited as reasons for this decline. Here's some thoughts....
Over the past few months I have visited a couple of places where I have been struck by the number of pubs which seems to fly in the face of the talk of declining numbers of pubs. One was Clitheroe, where Whatpub? lists 22 pubs, bars, and clubs for a population of about 16,000, whilst at the back end of April I paid a visit to Buxton where similarly there seemed to be a relative abundance of pubs compared to so many towns these days. Other visits I have made to areas of cities such as Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield, where plenty of bars and pubs in that particular locality seem to be thriving, but that is the positive side set against a background of where large areas within those cities have seen so many pubs disappear so that there are few, if any left.
According to the British Beer and Pub Association, who represent many of the country's brewers and pub-owning companies, there were around 46,800 pubs in the UK in 2020, which was down from almost 61,000 in 2020, and only in the past few days a new report has revealed that the number of pubs in England and Wales alone has now dipped below 40,000 for the first time, with 200 already lost in the first 6 months of 2022, figures which make for grim reading. Add in another report which suggests that only about 37% of hospitality businesses are making a profit, with rising energy, goods, and labour costs cited as the main reasons, all of which are set to continue to rise, and based on these assessments the position for the drinks industry looks anything but positive.
But...let's take a step back.
Some of this has been inevitable. The loss of so many of our traditional pubs in recent years is in many cases a reflection in the decline of so many of our traditional industries. As factories, mills, mines, and the shipyards closed, over the intervening years so did many of the pubs that served them as people moved further afield to find work and the pubs' customer bases shrunk back until in many cases they withered away. And likewise the connection between many of the newer sources of employment that sprung up and their local community became weaker. The need to drive to work or a long journey there by train or bus cut back the demand for the traditional pint at dinnertime or after work. But legislation has also played a part, as has the rise in Health and Safety regulations and changing employee contracts and working patterns where a visit to a pub in working hours to have a drink is expressly forbidden.
|A former pub in an old industrial area, Sheffield|
But once people are in their locality what are their prospects of finding a pub? Again as with the old industries, the clearance of traditional terraced housing meant a lot of pubs were lost, with odd ones left here and there. But unlike the industrial estates that sprung up to replace the traditional factories, there was a time when new housing developments would bring along pubs, along with shops, schools, and other community facilities. The brewers would feel confident enough to invest in building a new pub and an estate pub vernacular sprung up in the 1960's and 1970's, typically low-level buildings with a lounge and taproom/games room, and flawed as many of them were, particularly in the choice of beers offered, they did serve a purpose for the local community.
|Typical 60's period estate pub|
These days, though, it is very rare for a new pub to be built by a brewer linked to a new housing development, so when, earlier this year, JW Lees opened a new pub, the Aviator, at Woodford on the site of the former Woodford Aerodrome near Stockport, it attracted a lot of attention. But why should this be such an unusual event? Well, brewery confidence is one thing. One of the reason pubs have declined is that many people's habits and routines have changed over the years due to different work and family routines, and with cheap drinks available from supermarkets, it is understandable why the pub has become less of an attraction for many people and, against that background, why brewers have been unwilling to invest.
|The Aviator, Woodford, near Stockport (Image: Confidentials)|
Another factor is proximity and ease. With less pubs more thinly spread over a larger area than they used to be, for many people it isn't a question of just walking out of the house, a short stroll, and you're there. It may be a mile or two away to the nearest pub, but then it's a question of getting there. If you fancy a few pints and you haven't a designated driver, what about the bus? That's not always an option, as reliability is a major issue these days, and in many cases, timetables have been cut back so that the last bus back home is early evening, so not really practical for a night out. You could ring a taxi, ok every now and again, but not sustainable for everybody on a regular basis. And so then, the options. Well, the football is on TV, or you could watch that new series on Netflix that everyone is talking about it. You've got plenty of drinks in at home and you could order a takeaway from that new Indian in town. And so another potential pub visit is lost, the scene repeated in homes up and down the country every week.
In the 1989 sports fantasy drama film Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner as a farmer who builds a baseball field in one of his cornfields, he hears a voice saying "if you build it, he will come." referring to the ghosts of former baseball stars such as Shoeless Joe Jackson who sure enough turn up and play a game in this cornfield stadium. In the same way I wish that other brewers took the approach that Lees did with the Aviator. OK, it costs money to build them and there are planning hurdles to overcome, but if enough people had the vision, the enterprise, and the willingness to do something about it the decline of our pubs could be slowed, if not halted. There are so many acres and acres of new housing developments across the country that have sprung up over recent years that are bereft of any facilities for social interaction and have no real identity, and I am sure that a decent pub or two with a good drinks selection, decent food, a pleasant beer garden, that is family-friendly but where everyone is made to feel welcome and catered for would work. If it's on people's doorsteps and it is easy to visit then, to misquote Field of Dreams, "if you build it they will come".
Of course there will be those of us who are prepared to travel to a decent pub whatever the challenges, but there are so many benefits to having a pub within the community. It helps to give the locality a sense of place, a space when you can call in and see people you know, pick up on the latest gossip, have a quiet pint on your own, or just talk complete bollocks with your mates over a few pints. I live in Hove Edge near Brighouse and there is no doubt that having two pubs, the Dusty Miller and The Old Pond, plus a bowling club, helps keep up the sense that Hove Edge is still a village, although the physical reality is that as more housing goes up and spaces are filled in the area is coalescing with neighbouring communities so that it is less obvious to anyone new to the area. But the fact is good pubs wherever they are do generate a sense of community and a feeling of belonging and social cohesion that is missing from so many areas across the country, be it new housing developments, a village in the Yorkshire Dales, or a former mining town in the Midlands, where pubs have never existed, or have closed due to dwindling customers.
|Community pub: The Dusty Miller, Hove Edge near Brighouse|
A local can mean different things to different people. To some people who do travel to a regular pub it is still performing the same function as a pub on your doorstep, but I would say that not everyone has the time or inclination to do that, and so that is why it is important to keep pubs alive in the communities where people live. And to go back to the opening paragraph, there are some places that manage to hold on to their pubs better than others, for whatever the reason.
The pub in the opening picture is The Surtees Arms in Ferryhill Station, County Durham, which I called in one damp Sunday afternoon two or three years ago on one of my trips to the North East. Despite the miserable weather, this traditional pub was pretty busy with a mix of old guys enjoying a pint and a natter, a couple of family groups, and a few lads watching the sport on TV. Here I was, a stranger in town, just calling in to get a tick in the Good Beer Guide, and I'd walked into an excellent example of a real community pub. The beer, from the Yard of Ale brewery round the back of the pub, was good too, but when I think of that visit I always remember that feeling of community. And that is what is at risk as the numbers of our pubs continue to decline....
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