Sunday, 4 February 2018

A cold, dry January

“I think we’ve seen the worst of the pub closures,” said the Pollyannas. “Things seem to have stabilised now.” But how wrong could they be?

On top of Winters and the Queens in Cheadle, which I have already reported, January saw three more pub closures in Stockport – the Victoria in Offerton (pictured), the Florist on Shaw Heath and the Jolly Sailor in Davenport. It’s believed there may be a chance the Victoria may reopen, but the others are all, I would guess, gone for good.

It’s usually the case with pub closures that you think “well, I’m not entirely surprised there”, and indeed it must be said that the Florist had had the “smell of death” around it for quite a while. But the fact that once-thriving pubs have closed underlines just how much the overall level of custom has declined, and how on a knife-edge much of the pub trade is today. And, as I said last year, drinking in many of the pubs that remain too often feels like sitting in a morgue.

It seems that nowadays any pub is fair game, unless it has become a destination food house or is located in a town centre or suburban hub. This is especially true if they occupy a site that is potentially lucrative for redevelopment, as the Jolly Sailor does. The traditional multi-purpose pub, with a mixture of local and outside trade, that once was a mainstay of the pub scene, has become an endangered species. And the idea that being the only pub for half a mile around in a residential area guarantees survival is even less true than it ever was.

But, never mind, no doubt a new micropub has opened up not too far away, where you can perch on an uncomfortable stool and drink a pint of cask ale from a brewery you’ve never heard of. So long as it’s not on a Monday or Tuesday, and not before 4 pm. So things aren’t too bad, then.

39 comments:

  1. Hold your horses on the jolly sailor...

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  2. But fella. You have new micro pubs. Go get yourself an overpriced glass of murk or some obscure weird ale. That's where it's at. Get with the CAMRA posse in the converted bookies or chippie. Pubs are so 20th century.

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  3. Curmudgeon touches on the development value of land as one reason for freehold owners to close pubs, or to screw up rents to business-destroying levels. I seem to remember the Lass O' Gowrie in Manchester being subject to the latter abuse, unless I was dreaming.

    I trust then, that he generally welcomes Jeremy Corbyn's proposals to end or at least to de-incentivise land hoarding, by only compensating for Compulsory Purchase at current land use values, rather than at building land ones?

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    1. is this a real issue with the national pub estate, as how many people invest in property on the basis that it might be bought by the council in the future?

      The suspect the general issue of redevelopment is more of a Southern concern than it is in the North. Unless of course, you subscribe to the view that EVERY pub should be preserved forever as a shrine to what once was?

      Most of the big pub agents have told us over the last decade that half of the pub company disposals have been sold for alternative uses. Therefore, the other half has remained as pubs! Not all of these pubs have been bought by regional brewers so we know that many freehold pubs have been bought by private individuals to run as freehouses. Not all of these will succeed. Are we to block these parties chances of walking away with their insurance policy of developing for another use if it fails as a free House pub?

      If we are, we will just deter more parties investing in the pub sector.

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    2. Ethelred The Unsteady4 February 2018 at 14:11

      I meant to sign off the above comment, sorry.

      The speculative value of land for development certainly is a consideration for pub freeholders, though as you suggest, except where pubs, say, have large car parks or other curtilages, they're unlikely to be the subject of a Compulsory Purchase.

      As I understand it, the proposal is intended to drive down land prices and hence speculation generally, so the effect on the pub estate and its owners would be indirect.

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  4. One advantage Mudge has is that he will have visited these pubs at least once over the last 2 years on his CAMRA staggers. I think I may have joined him and seen the state of a couple of them, back in the dim and distant when I was curious enough, though not as recent as Mudge. It would be interesting to hear what Mudge thought of them as actual pubs and the desirability of having a drink in any of them.

    My recollection is of a pub that fell into the swift hurried half category of the stagger. The crap pubs that are a begrudged obligation of the evening get only fleeting visits. Often a bit tatty, run down or lived in with the realisation that there would be no reason you'd ever want to actually visit the place under your own steam and if you lived in the vicinity you would doubtless swerve. Not because they were necessarily rough or the beer was poor. Simply that you'd prefer to sit in a smarter establishment for your hard earned money. There is better value to be had elsewhere on any of the criteria that you might choose a place. Certainly if you were a CAMRA beer enthusiast there is nothing for you here.

    The kiss of death may be noticing a place is quiet when you'd expect it busy. It is also noticing it doesn't actually appear to serve any function to anyone.

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  5. Ethelred The Unsteady4 February 2018 at 11:20

    Hi Cookie.

    I came across your penultimate point the other Friday night. The pub was warm, well-presented, and with decent beer. It was in a comfortable residential area too, and yet there were only a dozen or so customers in.

    However, at one point, and at the behest of one of the drinkers, the landlord appeared with his pet snake, which he then showed around the pub. The bar lady hid.

    Now, I don't know how widespread herpetophilia might be, but I'd guess at not very, but this isn't the first pub by any means I've been in, where something similar has happened.

    So perhaps we should add another rule for avoiding failure. "Don't Be Weird".

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    1. the pub as a vanity business filled by the landlord and his pals is something I only see these days if I make the mistake of checking out a new micro pub and notice it's of the cliquey type. Micro pubs are places to only ever visit the once. Just to say you have. Not yet been to one I'd go in a second time.

      maybe the overheads to too big for full on vanity pubs, these days.

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    2. Ethelred The Unsteady4 February 2018 at 14:24

      Trust me (haha!) that was not a vanity business. The landlord has striven to build up the business and he has no other livelihood. I think that what I saw was just an error of judgement, but maybe not an insignificant one.

      As for micropubs, oh, I think I'll give the Black Dog in Whitstable another go later this week, as I would the Blue Boar in Leicester, but they would probably best be described as just small pubs.

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  6. Curious that "proper pubs" are falling like ninepins and micro-pubs are opening like something that opens a lot, when everybody prefers the former to the latter. Perhaps the law of supply and demand -- so beloved of free market capitalists like 'mudge -- has been rescinded?

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    1. Any supporter of free markets has to accept that they don't always deliver the outcomes they personally prefer. As I wrote here,

      "Now there is one very good thing about micropubs, in that they demonstrate that free markets work. Make it easier for people to open new drinking establishments and, where there is the demand, they will spring up to replace the big, old-fashioned pubs that have struggled to prosper in a changed climate for the licensed trade. But, as places that I personally want to visit as a drinker, they tend to leave me cold."

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    2. I think that "proper pubs", whatever you take that to mean, have a great disadvantage in terms of building maintenance costs and probably rates compared to micro pubs and that explains a lot. Large Victorian buildings, maybe a car park compared to basically a converted shop.

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    3. It's mostly to do with cost base - a micropub might be doing 3/4 the business of a "proper" pub, but can be paying literally 10% of the effective rent of a pubco pub.

      And going for redevelopment isn't just a southern thing, but oop north it does tend to require a decent-sized carpark or bowling green etc to make it really work. Plus if you look at the figures the disposable incomes up north are significantly higher, which helps.

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    4. "the disposable incomes up north are significantly higher"

      Fascinating point, this. Going round the country you wouldn't know which was north or south from the pubs (apart from London where the temperature of the beer is a giveaway).

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    5. Business rates are set for pubs on 'fair maintainable trade' not square footage, so it's basically what based on what turnover the valuer thinks you can do (this is often just whatever you have been doing).
      They have the advantage in usually being low turnover, single units which can benefit from small business rates relief, so most don't pay anything at all.

      Rents are low too because the premises are usually empty when taken over, and have been for some time, and need conversion, so low rent is negotiable.

      Some stay under the VAT threshold, although this can really only support one person on a basic living. Many more qualify for a flat rate scheme and pay significantly less VAT than higher turnover pubs.

      Then there are reduced staff costs from reduced trading times, although this is a double edged sword.

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    6. "the disposable incomes up north are significantly higher"

      Not sure how valid this is overall. It may well be true for people doing a similar job and trying to buy a house, but in general in the South there are a lot more high-paying jobs, plus a lot of well-off people in late careers or retired who have paid off their mortgages. The amount of visible wealth in many places in the South is out of all proportion to the vast majority of the North.

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  7. Much as it pains me to say, I agree with what Cookie is saying here. It's not surprising that pubs included on CAMRA-organised pub crawls, which are only worthy of a swift half just to remind participants how awful they actually are, end up closing.

    To quote, "There would be no reason you'd ever want to actually visit the place under your own steam and if you lived in the vicinity you would doubtless swerve".

    We all know these sorts of un-welcoming, totally down-at-heel pubs, and it's hardly surprising they fail. The only real surprise is that some of them hang on as long as they do.

    Market forces perhaps? Or, as Cookie says, people expecting something rather better for their hard-earned cash.

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    1. Ah yes, the bottom quartile of pubs close because they're a bit crap. Then, five years down the road, the bottom quartile of those remaining closes again. See where this is heading?

      Individual pubs may close because others offer more of what customers want, but looking at the market as a whole, pubs close because the overall demand for pubs has diminished. Surely that is a matter of regret?

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    2. Is the fact that people have many more ways of being entertained than they had fifty years ago a matter of regret? I don't think so.

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    3. I also regret that the overall demand for pubs has diminished, but unfortunately it is part of the changing society in which we live. I am as guilty as anyone in not using pubs as frequently as I once did, and last night’s brief visit will do little to enhance the pub trade or promote beer sales.

      A sad fact of life, I’m afraid, and Tandleman was correct when he said people like us have seen the best of pubs.

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    4. Ethelred The Unsteady5 February 2018 at 14:55

      Maybe if there wasn't something for just about everyone to dislike in them, then some would do better. I mean, deafening sport commentary (why can't they just Blue Tooth it to people's iPhone/earpieces?), being overrun with dogs, children or both, quizzes, karaoke and the rest.

      You can't blame the EU for any of that, can you?

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    5. Well, yes, much of it (although not all) is due to social changes which, realistically, there's nothing you can do about. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be publicly regretted.

      And it continues to annoy me when people either claim that micropubs and brewery taps are an adequate replacement for proper pubs, or blame it all on evil pubcos and developers while being wilfully blind to the wider factors at work.

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    6. "Tandleman was correct when he said people like us have seen the best of pubs."

      Sadly that is very true. The pub trade as a whole is a pale shadow of what it once was.

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    7. Ethelred The Unsteady5 February 2018 at 17:53

      Cue Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E minor) 2nd movement, Largo.

      *That's the Hovis music to you and me, sunshine.

      It's a long road that never turns.

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  8. Syd Differential5 February 2018 at 15:56

    Wifi can be a good measurement of whether a pub is likely to be crap or not.
    For the life of me I don't understand why,if a pub was WiFi,they don't just chalk up the password on a large board over the bar.
    Having to ask for it and then being told begrudgingly what it is tells me a lot about a place.
    Having to enter your email address to access the internet tells me even more.

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    1. Ethelred The Unsteady5 February 2018 at 16:54

      Enter the email address of someone whom you don't like then, and let them receive all the spam, eh?

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  9. The traditional multi purpose pub with a mixture of local and trade from further afield developed as a result of changing economic and social circumstances from the 1920's onwards,including a rise in the number of large employers and a growth in private transport,society and the economy have continued to change and this is reflected in the pub industry developing in distinctly different ways often serving the same customer base but at different times when the customer has different requirements.Examples of this development can be seen in family dining pubs on retail parks,Wetherspoon and similar operations in town centres and micro pubs. The pub has always evolved to reflect social and economic change and the decline in multi purpose pubs reflects this change. It is good to see that pub operators are adapting to change as they have done in the past.

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    1. That point would have some validity if it was a case of a broadly steady level of trade migrating from some outlets to others, but in fact it's accompanied by a significant year-on-year decline in the total amount of business. It's like Spinal Tap - the appeal of pubs has become much more selective.

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  10. I think few people really regret the loss of the general purpose pub. Cookie is dead right. Who wants to go in one and for what purpose? I think pubs need a USP now to attract the remaining declined custom. In a generation I can see the on trade being entirely concentrated in town and city centres or near suburban rail stations where commuting isn't by car, with a few pub-cum-restaurants in the countryside.

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    1. On the contrary, I'd say a lot of people regret both the general retreat of the pub trade, and the loss of pubs where you could encounter a variety of customers. You seem to be accepting that the pub trade is going to retreat into a small and ever-decreasing niche that is irrelevant to the majority of the population. Maybe so, but hardly anything to be celebrated.

      And, yet again, you conflate that London with the rest of the country. Outside London and its environs, hardly anyone commutes by train.

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    2. I never said celebrate, I said don't regret. And there are plenty of other places that decent commuting links like Manchester and Leeds and they don't shut down at 6pm.

      You want a healthy pub scene right? Every other post is about the decline of pubs. And yet you refuse to acknowledge the one area of the country that does still have a pub culture. Sure, there are ones that have closed, but very few I can think of recently. I walk into most pubs can and be assured of a busy atmosphere any night of the week. Isn't that what you'd prefer? Or do you prefer walking into morgues, sad testaments to times past?

      So if you ask yourself what sets London apart, it probably isn't disposable income once housing costs are accounted for. My hypothesis is transport. But I'll leave the car commuters to their high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity and enjoy a vibrant pub scene! (I do have a classic in the garage that comes out a handful of times a month in better weather).

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    3. It's London that's out of step with the rest of the country, not the other way round.

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  11. Excellent article wIth some considered commentary. A couple of Sunday's ago I was dragged to Monks cross shopping centre, it was heaving, despite there being numerous outlets, you couldn't get a seat anywhere in a coffee house. At 3.30 I was deposited outside my local (the busiest of three in our village). Guess what, exactly the self same faces from 20 years ago, depleted to a dozen at most, and there was a football match on. Disposable income doesn't really come into play, it's an affluent area. Modern cafe bar, less than a mile away - you couldn't get in the door. Whether we like it or not, people just don't want to go to the traditional boozer anymore.

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    1. Not sure there are often many people in the trendy bar at the same time, that's if it's even open at that time. As I've said above, it's not just a shift of trade, it's an overall diminution.

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    2. Ethelred The Unsteady7 February 2018 at 12:16

      What's the shape of the curve, I wonder, for the total person-hours spent in pubs for the UK against time? Does it have a horizontal asymptote? That is, is there some level below which it would be unlikely to fall, before we all start weeping?

      I'll do some research.

      See y'all.

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    3. The latest BBPA figures show a 2.4% decline in on-trade beer sales in 2017, I suspect the floor is a long, long way below the current level. You also need to strip out time spent eating in pubs, which is a fundamentally different activity from just drinking. If all people did in pubs was eat, they wouldn't be pubs any longer.

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    4. Ethelred The Unsteady7 February 2018 at 19:37

      Maybe we need to look at all-alcohol sales in pubs, rather than just beer for a clearer picture as to what's going on. After all, there has been a move to shots among the young for instance, and cider is maybe on the rise too. Oh. And then there's Prosecco.

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  12. Simply put, smoking ban. But some, like Mudgie, already know that.

    That said -- smokers (and, grudgingly, nosmos) -- best wishes for the remaining eleven (approx.) months ahead.

    Churchmouse

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