Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Always look on the bright side

In their new book 20th Century Pub, Boak and Bailey reached the conclusion that “we feel unfashionably optimistic for the pub”. Now, in my usual role as Cassandra, I obviously had to respond “I have to say I’m not so sure.” But, in this context, it’s interesting to try to define exactly what being optimistic means.

The British Beer and Pub Association’s British Beer Barometer statistical series goes back to 1997. If, in that year, anyone had suggested that, over the next twenty years, the amount of beer sold in British pubs would more than halve, they would have been accused of unrealistic doom-mongering. But that is exactly what has happened. The latest figures are for the first quarter of this year, so in that period of just over 19 years, the total sales have fallen by 51%. In the first ten years, it was 28.4%, and in the following 9¼ it was 31.5%. There has been a net loss of about 20,000 pubs but, given that many new bars have opened, the gross loss of identifiable pubs that were in existence in 1997 must be at least 25,000. By any standards, that has to be regarded as a disaster for the industry.

While the pressures may have eased a little in recent years, it would be complacent to imagine that the trade is in any sense out of the woods. The average annual fall over the past four years has still been 2.1%. It’s probably fair to say that the direct effect of the smoking ban on footfall in pubs has now worked through the system, but even so many pubs that are still open will have been left in a much weaker financial position than they otherwise would be.

The general tide of anti-alcohol sentiment in society continues unabated. Employers are increasingly intolerant of any drinking whatsoever by their staff during the working day, leading to the ever further erosion of the traditional weekday lunchtime couple of pints. The idea that alcohol consumption is per se bad for you continues to gain currency, with an ever higher proportion of people claiming not to drink at all. Even when alcohol is consumed, it is increasingly seen as something that has to be ringfenced from any kind of responsible activity, which all too often means doing so at home rather than while out and about. For twenty years, a Sword of Damocles has hung over the English pub in the form of cutting the drink-drive limit, which has often been mooted, but not so far implemented south of the Border. What the precise impact would be is open to debate, but it would unquestionably be very much in the downward direction.

It’s also important not to forget the role of demographic churn as an agent of change. Many of the shifts in patterns of pubgoing are not due to existing customers changing their behaviour, but to new entrants to the population of potential pubgoers having very different habits from those whose custom has been lose due to age or infirmity.

Given all these pressures, it’s hard to see the story of the next twenty years being much different from the previous ones. Extrapolate the same trend for another 19¼ years to the middle of 2036, and annual barrelage will have shrunk from 12.8 million to 6.3 million. Even a 1% decline per year would still leave the trade 18% down come 2036. That may be considerably better than anything seen in the past twenty years, but it still wouldn’t really qualify as good news. Of course by then I will be in my late seventies, so whether I will still be in a position to be going to pubs is open to question, even assuming that there are any pubs left for me to go to.

Of course, forecasting the future by extrapolating from the past is always prone to pitfalls. It could be that the trade “bottoms out” at a level not much below where it is at present. And it’s always possible that some kind of “black swan” event could turn things right around. After all, in 1959 the continued slow decline of the pub in the face of competition from staying in to watch the telly seemed assured, but the next twenty years saw the trade almost double, despite it often being a period of economic difficulties. But if there are any straws in the wind indicating a change of direction, they’re very hard to discern.

Or is optimism maybe seen only in terms of the particular, not the general?

28 comments:

  1. I think the demise of big standard pubs outside of town and city centres will continue apace... Drinking will be in centres or affluent villages with a drinking demographic..big impact on all new breweries as no outlets....however expect an increase in restaurant style drinking bars and regional trends.. basically an ongoing downward spiral!

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  2. Never mind, we'll see a doubling of brewery numbers over the next 20 years, all complaining about access to a fixed number of free houses, so that's OK.
    MT

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  3. The pub, like truth, will eventually out.

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  4. Many places are opening serving beer but true - they're not pubs but one of many things replacing/standing in for them. We might have a nation of tap rooms (even though I enjoy them). Another factor are of course business rates and the housing market that keeps sucking pubs in and spitting houses out.

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    1. I'm highlighting the headline number of total on-trade beer volume. Whatever the number of outlets, the amount of beer sold tells its own story. I don't think in general the number of "unconventional" outlets goes anywhere near to offsetting the number of pubs lost, plus few of them actually sell much beer.

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  5. What I am about to say may seem to some to be shocking. Before I am labelled "racist" however please hold onto your knickers and just think about it. I live in Yorkshire but this applies also to parts of Lancashire, and great parts of the Midlands. Towns and cities like Bradford, Leeds, Halifax, Blackburn, Bolton, Wolverhampton, Birmingham etc etc are now (for 40+ years) being populated more and more by "ethnic minorities". They are having more children than whites. In fact, white people in these towns are now THE minority. Think of all those back street boozers on rows and rows of terraced streets that have gone - for the very simple reason that there are no more white people in the area to frequent them. In the future, maybe fifty years into the future, white English will be a minority in England. This is a proven fact ! Discuss ?

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    1. Don't non white-English people drink? I know that Musslemen are supposed to eschew alcohol as are baptised Sikhs but I have had some good ale ups with non white-English people. West Indians, South Americans, Scots, Poles the list goes on.

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    2. "White people in these towns are now the majority" - not true of the places you mentioned, at least according to latest census: Bradford (67% white), Leeds (85%), Blackburn (69%), Bolton (82%), Wolverhampton (68%), Birmingham (58%). The census had seven districts without people identifying as white in the majority; Newham, Brent, Harrow, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets, Slough, Ealing.

      It doesn't seem realistic to think that ~5% of the population being Muslim has much to do with a 50% drop in on-trade sales over 20 years.

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    3. David - I was thinking more about the Muslin community here than other groups.

      Tom - the former working-class areas of these northern towns are becoming more and more populated by non-whites. I experience this. Where do you live ?

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    4. Anecdotally I'd agree that demographic changes have resulted in pubs serving no social function in some areas. Areas around Manchester that once had a large Irish immigrant population that liked pubs now have a large Muslim population that do not drink. Therefore the area has fewer pubs. What impact this has on national pub statistics I could not tell you. That's not being nasty to Muslims. I'm in favour of knocking useless pubs down & building stuff to services the community

      It is sad, though, that simply looking at facts concerning societal demographic changes could be considered "racist". There's also more Polish shops around Lincolnshire as a result of immigration. That's just a fact.

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    5. Tom - Birmingham (58% white), Bradford (67% white),
      Blackburn (69% white). That is nearly 50/50 in some towns, and although I was wide of the mark saying whites are now THE minority, it will no be far away. It is a fact that the Muslin community as mentioned do not drink in pubs. The pubs where mainly white communities lived have now shut because (in part surely ?) of lack of foot-fall.

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    6. Changing ethnic mix is certainly a factor in some inner-urban areas, but I wouldn't say it's a prime cause of the overall decline. And most of the pubs have also gone on some peripheral estates with an overwhelmingly white population such as Langley in Middleton, which Tandleman has reported on.

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    7. Sorry - I keep pressing N for M in "Muslim" by mistake.

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    8. I live in Dudley, and lived in Birmingham prior to that. Asian majority areas like Sparkbrook, Sparkhill etc certainly have a lot of pubs that have turned into restaurants and shops.

      Though of course some low income white majority areas have had pubs close down too, sometimes replaced with housing or nothing, so culture and religion is only one factor, but perhaps an important factor in those areas.

      Whites aren't the minority in Birmingham as a whole by a long way as pointed out above.

      I have South Asian friends who aren't as strict on the Muslim prohibition of alcohol.

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  6. Add in all the pubs beardoes pretend are still pubs but are actually restaurants & the number of actual pubs is lower further.

    There is little hope for the pub. It's time has passed. Pub themed licensed premises will stick around in diminished numbers if you want to pretend pubs still exist. Mono cultural soulless converted bookie shops are nice places to sit for an ale and are often near some closed pubs if you want to go look at them.

    The future is the young & they prefer going to the gym after work & when they go out they want to go to nicer places than pubs. You cannot blame them for that. They listened to the puritanical messages you all ignored as they were the target audience not you.

    Keep thinking it's all the fault of Tesco or smoking bans or whatever. The puritanical wave has not abated and will kill off many more pubs yet. The working class lager pubs have nothing to offer the earnest pub campaigner so will not be missed. Many more to go yet.

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  7. I would like to bet that you wave your camra card about when you go in a pub giving a discount to them Cookie.
    We being me and the wife always pay the full price for beer which must help the pubs out that we visit.
    There are still loads of proper pubs left,we do them and i have done over 300 proper pubs this year that i have never been in.
    I am not sure how you lot sleep at night if you have such negative thoughts about what i would like to think means a lot to you in life.
    As the saying goes,always look on the bright side of life,we do you never know when it will be your last day,so we especially me always enjoy each day as it could well be my last day.

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    1. Oh Aye, I get the discount, Al me laddo. It's one of the perks of the beardies I applaud. Some gaffs give you a discount on the lager with the beard card.

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    2. There are plenty of pubs left, but plenty have closed too, as you have described on your blog, Alan. The two statements are not inconsistent with each other. And it's a cold hard fact that the amount of beer sold in pubs has halved over the past twenty years.

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    3. I've thought more about Al's comment and it's time to call out one of the key poiuts as bollocks.

      That by paying 30p more for your pint, not accepting your 10% off you are helping pubs. What tosh.

      By taking the 30p off you are helping the pub find a more rational pricing strategy through customer differentiation.

      What's more after only 9 pints you have enough 30p's to buy an extra pint, helping the pubs further.

      I mean, that's just basic maths.

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    4. I do not get a discount in certain pubs like you do Cookie,as i have never been a Camra member.
      I do not understand your thinking on this,if i paid the full price for drinks,the pub would be £3 better off at the end of the session,if the pub was a local that i visit once a week the pub would be £156 pounds better off over the year.
      It may be time to go back to school Cookie.

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  8. The beer facts you give are not disputed, but the cause for optimism may be that what has survived is likely to be better prepared to continue to thrive. On the other hand, demographics paint a gloomy picture

    Nonetheless you still need to use it or lose it and the trend towards home drinking and smaller amounts will not help overall consumption figures.

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    1. I don't think the "culling the stragglers" argument can really be applied to pubs, as the number of outlets has fallen more slowly than the amount of trade. I can easily think of at least ten pubs within a couple of miles of me that I would say are living on borrowed time.

      Also, as I said, the "use it or lose it" line is outweighed by churn. It doesn't really matter what you or I do, if the next generation are behaving differently. And Hydes have deliberately made my local pub unappealing to me, so I hardly go in it any more, whereas I used to go at least once most weeks.

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  9. Not my work - a lunch time pint is completely acceptable. But then I don't operate heavy machinery.

    Now three pints...

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  10. Has the decline in industry and manual work had an effect?
    Working in a call centre doesn't make you as thirsty as working down a pit.

    Has beer got stronger, meaning volume consumed goes down?

    On the subject of muslims, a lot more of them drink than they are letting on. I also reckon that the next generation, born here, will be more likely not to be so strict as their parents.

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    1. Actually I'd say the opposite is true - in many cases the current generation are *more* fundamentalist than their parents.

      Yes, my understanding is that plenty of Muslims do drink, but they don't do it in public. When they first came to places like Oldham and Bradford in the 50s and 60s to work in the mills, a lot of Pakistanis would drink in the local pubs, but their children and grandchildren certainly won't be seen doing that now.

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  11. If the trade more or less doubled over fortyish years and then halved over twenty, are we not just back where we started? Maybe this is normal and it is the seventies and eighties which were the aberration? Given the fall in pub numbers, it also suggests that many pubs sixty or more years ago must have been scraping by on very little trade. And given the shift from on-trade to off-trade sales, is not more beer being drunk, by more people, overall.

    There have to be damn good reasons to go out and spend 3-5 times as much on beer in a pub than you would sitting at home and in my opinion a lot of pubs are a long way from offering them. Perhaps the surprise is not the reduction in pubs and the amount of beer sold in them, but that those numbers are still so high?

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    1. There was a also a decline of about 33% between 1979 and 1997, so the current level of on-trade beer sales is about 33% lower than it was in the late 1950s. Also in the 1950s the general "offer" of pubs was much more limited, so would have needed a lower level of business to make it sustainable.

      But I agree that the number of outlets has fallen more slowly than the level of sales, which suggests there's likely to be more pain to come.

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