Would anyone bother inventing them? I’ve been going in pubs (legally) for over thirty years, and over the last twenty of those I’ve seen their trade steadily dwindle away. Pubgoing has become something of a way of life for me, but when I consider the number of near-empty, dying-on-their-feet establishments I come across nowadays, I can’t avoid thinking that it’s not something someone reaching the age at which they can legally drink would really want to bother with. I remember when you’d go in pubs and they were usually busy, with a convivial crowd of locals and regulars. Not any more. Back in the day, you’d worry whether you’d get a seat. Now, you worry if you’ll be sitting in splendid, embarrassing isolation.
A short walk through Stockport town centre at around 8 pm the other Thursday night revealed five pubs with their doors closed that as far as I knew were supposed to be still trading. Discussing it later, it seems that some were in fact opening at lunchtimes and weekend evenings, but for a town centre pub to be closed on a Thursday evening is a pretty desperate state of affairs. Now, none of these were exactly the cream of the crop, but even so there was always enough trade to sustain them in the past. This suggests that even the pessimists may be understating the plight of the pub trade.
Getting on for 4,000 pubs have closed in the past couple of years and, looking around Northern industrial towns, I can well believe that is an underestimate. There must be as many again, if not more, like those pubs in Stockport, clinging on for the time being but not really looking very viable in the longer term. Yes, some pubs aren't doing too badly, but I can only think of five or six in central Stockport that could really be described as busy. And, when a pub is near-empty, you can’t really blame people for not wanting to go there, thus creating a vicious circle of decline.
Yet this collapse in trade still doesn’t really seem to have hit home – we still hear many folks saying “I went in the Dog & Duck last Friday night and it was heaving, so I can’t see anything wrong with the pub trade that a bit of good management can’t fix”, conveniently ignoring the five other pubs in the vicinity that have either closed down or are dead zones most of the time. I know this sounds pessimistic, but are we now seeing the end of the pub trade as we once knew it?
Over the next twenty years, I can see anything remotely resembling a traditional pub as the term is commonly understood completely disappearing. We currently have maybe 55,000 licensed premises in Great Britain, and that will at least halve. We will be left with restaurants in the guise of pubs, weekend circuit venues, niche beer bars, and virtually nothing else apart from the ubiquitous Wetherspoons, which have become a kind of licensed cafeteria. The idea of a pub being part of a community, or people just going out for a social drink, will be a thing of the past.
And no, this won’t be entirely the fault of the smoking ban, but history may well show the ban to have been the “tipping point” that turned a slow, steady decline into a fall off the precipice.