Some gloomy, but sadly all too realistic words here from Robert Sayles about the decline of beer sales in the on-trade. He describes the 6.3% year-on-year fall that I referred to the other day as “calamitous”.
The tied sector is, it must be said, looking increasingly uncompetitive in comparison. It is an unpalatable fact but many of us are now in the business of selling a product that less and less want to buy, at a price that less and less can afford to pay. Hardly a recipe for long term success, is it?I have never claimed that the smoking ban was a monocausal explanation for the decline of pubs, as obviously it began well before 2007. I set out a number of reasons for it here. However, the ban has undoubtedly made matters much worse, and to my mind Sayles understates its impact. But it is clear from what he says that the underlying problem of the pub industry is not business structure or incompetent licensees, but a straightforward lack of demand.
For the first time I have to say I am genuinely fearful of what lies ahead, we are in freefall with little sign of respite. An imminent rise in VAT, increasing pressure on disposable income, high unemployment and inevitable increases in beer prices ensure that difficult times lie ahead.
There’s no easy answer or quick fix, but the last thing that is needed is government measures making things worse. The pub industry might well feel that Ronald Reagan had it right when he said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I'm here to help.’”
Pubs as we know them are not going to disappear completely, but it’s easy to see them over the next twenty years being cut back to a small rump that only exists in the kind of socially mixed, prosperous urban areas that provide the environment and culture to support them. There are many pubs still open but obviously doing a very thin trade that must be candidates for further closures in the future. I remember the days when, approaching the door of many pubs, you would be worried whether you would be able to get a seat. All too often nowadays, the worry is more that you’ll be the only customer.
And, sadly, CAMRA, happily ensconced in their love-in at Earl’s Court this week, cannot or will not see it, and continue to delude themselves that once hard times are past a somewhat smaller, but revitalised pub industry will spring forth.