Thursday, 21 November 2013

Sorting the sheep from the goats

I was recently sent a link to an interesting academic research paper. It’s worth reproducing the summary in full:

Could saving the traditional pub be the answer to Britain’s binge drinking problem?

A research study finds evidence for the traditional pub as a site for restrained and responsible social interaction for young adults. The UK government wants further controls to restrict high street bars but on the other hand is concerned about the decline in the number of traditional public houses or pubs. A recent article published in Planning Theory & Practice, Young adults and the decline of the urban English pub: issues for planning, by Marion Roberts (University of Westminster) & Tim Townshend (Newcastle University), discusses whether the English Planning System should distinguish between pubs for the ‘public good’ and licensed premises associated with ‘social ills’?

Roberts and Townshend bring together two issues that have pre-occupied the British government; the decline of the British pub and young people’s drinking. The number of public houses in the UK has fallen by nearly one quarter in the space of three decades. Meanwhile alcohol consumption amongst young adults remains a key policy concern. The authors discuss evidence from research into local variations in youth drinking cultures in England*, which found that young people reported drinking in a restrained and responsible manner in ‘traditional’ pubs. Young adults in their study reported having one or two drinks on a weekday evening or sometimes not drinking alcohol at all. Such behaviour could be contrasted with heavy drinking at high street bars or at house parties.

“I’ve got one group of friends who I would go out clubbing with and they like to get completely wrecked… My other group of friends are more like me and like to go down the pub and have a glass of wine and stick to soft drinks after that. It depends who I am out with.”

While recognising the adverse effects of excessive alcohol consumption, the authors point out that going to pubs reinforces social ties and networks. This evidence lends support to arguments for the contribution of pubs to social sustainability and paradoxically, to health, or at least a healthier mode of alcohol consumption.

The article explores the difficulties the English planning system faces in seeking to distinguish pubs that might be identified with a ‘public good’ from other types of licensed premises more associated with ‘social ills’. The Use Class Order in the English planning system does not provide an adequate distinction between different types of drinking establishment. The authors suggest a new use class established for traditional pubs where the majority of patrons are seated. The UK government is already providing special support to ‘community pubs’, through the Localism Act 2011 and the Community Services Grants. The study found that its sample of young adults were prepared to travel to meet friends and that their pub going routines were rarely confined to their ‘local’. This suggests that while the Localism Act may be effective in supporting well-organised community groups, it does not meet the needs of a younger, mobile demographic.

“It may seem paradoxical to support going to pubs as part of a healthier lifestyle”, says Marion Roberts, “and it is important not to romanticise pubs as there are issues about the extent to which young women feel welcome or comfortable in them and that applies to other groups. Nevertheless, the planning system has been called on by politicians to help local pubs to survive and it does seem that this issue should be taken seriously.”

This sounds all well and good in a motherhood-and-apple pie kind of way, but it’s extremely questionable whether it’s achievable in practice. For a start, many of the traditional pubs have gone already, so it would be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. And, while the planning system certainly can effectively stop certain types of business from opening up, it can’t magic desirable ones into existence in the absence of customer demand and willingness of businesses to invest.

It would also in practice be very difficult to come up with a watertight definition to distinguish “good” from “bad” businesses and, in reality, the character of a pub is often determined by its clientele rather than the other way round. People might not normally regard Wetherspoon’s, specialist beer bars or upmarket dining pubs as sources of trouble and social ills, but they certainly don’t conform to the classic image of the traditional local. It would be like trying to separate out healthy and unhealthy takeaways through planning law. Qualitative planning criteria are very unlikely to be workable.

A further important point is that the relationship between young people and pubs has been severely eroded by the much greater efforts made in recent years to combat underage drinking. A generation ago, underage drinking in pubs was widely tolerated so long as no trouble was caused. This taught young people how to drink responsibly, and also got them used to the habit of pubgoing. Now, when they will not get served until they are indubitably 18, and even then are constantly harassed to provide proof of age, it is hardly surprising that they go much less and feel more negatively about pubs than they once did. Yet I doubt whether a deliberate policy of turning a blind eye to well-behaved under-18s in pubs is going to find much favour in official circles.

As so often, while politicians spout weasel words about the virtues of pubs, the reality on the ground is that they continue to encourage the policies that have harmed them. They like them in theory, but not in practice. The report is, like many academic publications, bizarrely silent on the factor that in recent years has done more damage to traditional pubs than any other.

It is also very doubtful whether the widespread view that pub drinking is somehow more responsible than at-home drinking has any validity except in the context of socialising the under-25 age group. On average, adults drinking at home will drink less per sitting than those in pubs and are less exposed to risk. Plus, forty years ago, when at-home drinking was largely irrelevant, pubs were by no means all calm, well-behaved establishments – rowdy and even violent behaviour were far from unknown and, back then, if you wanted to see drunks, you found them in pubs.


  1. Who says there's a 'binge drinking problem' anyway?

  2. I personally think the way the pub industry treats younger legal customers is one of the most self defeating acts of self destruction seen in business.

    In my experience the pubs that treat younger punters the worst are the very traditional pubs often referred to as CAMRA pubs, but this is no fault of CAMRA or it's members who if anything could only be accused of failing to see the world through the eyes of others in giving out their awards and recommendations.

  3. "Who says there's a 'binge drinking problem' anyway?"

    There has definitely been a move from regular moderate drinking to irregular immoderate drinking, which has not been helpful to the pub trade. Of course the health lobby disapproves of both.

  4. There has definitely been a move from regular moderate drinking to irregular immoderate drinking

    I don't think the stats back that up Mudgie, I think that actually regular moderate drinking, regular immoderate drinking, and irregular immoderate drinking have ALL fallen significantly in
    the past 10 years.

    But yes, I agree with Cookie. The majority of pubs are just not welcoming places for 18-25 year olds, unlike, say, Starbucks.

  5. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are much more likely to forgo pub visits during the week than the big weekend night out - and my observation of the trade of pubs supports this.

  6. I think the "Pubs being unwelcoming to under 25s" and the lack of underage drinking are part and parcel of the same problem.

    Was in my local Sunday evening, and walked about 4 young uns to play pool. They were shouting and balling and carrying on, and being somewhat intimidating.

    They were in the other bar, and I thought I'm not putting up with this, and supped up and went.

    In my day, they'd never have done this, as at 16 or 17 you were working and had money to spend, but the landlord would serve you under sufferance and let you know he knew you were underage but would still serve you, but any bother and you're out

    Now, because they're all of age, they think they can carry on and behave like animals, and then wonder why they find pubs unwelcoming.

  7. I was sent the same press release. I wrote back to them as follows:

    Saving the traditional pub would certainly be all to the good, but (speaking as a sociologist) I'm not convinced Britain has a binge-drinking problem in the first place. Without getting into the definition of 'binge drinking', we know that alcohol consumption is in long-term decline in Britain - young people included. I'd love to see more plush-seated wet-led pubs & fewer vertical drinking dens, as I think that would both signal and foster a more healthy relationship with alcohol & alcohol-fuelled socialising. It wouldn't necessarily drive per capita consumption down any faster, though, and the reductivist public health consensus on alcohol - which gave us our current definition of 'binge drinking' - would still find plenty to complain about.

    (Actually I'm more of a criminologist than a sociologist, but let's not split hairs.)

  8. Phil

    Must be a criminologist/sociologist thing as that was basically my response.


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