Friday, 24 August 2018

A mixed blessing

This week has seen the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of all-day opening for pubs, which came in on 22 August 1988. From the perspective of today, it seems hard to believe that pubs were required to close for two or three hours every afternoon. It was originally introduced by Lloyd George as an emergency measure during the First World War, but lingered on for over seventy years.

There were dire predictions of mayhem in the streets in the early evenings after people had been drinking for hours, but needless to say nothing of the kind occurred. However, it’s important to remember that pubs didn’t immediately fling their doors open. For quite a few years, most stuck to the old pattern of opening. I remember it being well-nigh impossible to find anywhere open in central Manchester on a Saturday afternoon after 3 pm. It was only the pressure from Wetherspoon’s and other pub chains that forced the generality of pubs to follow suit.

However, it’s now become well-nigh universal for pubs in urban centres, and for food-led pubs in general. Overall, it’s hard to dispute that it’s greatly benefited pubgoers, allowing pubs to tailor their hours to what their customers actually want. It enables the kind of afternoon pub crawls that have now become standard practice for those of us interested in pub exploring, while Good Beer Guide tickers liked Martin Taylor have noticed the growing phenomenon of pubs having a busy session around four in the afternoon when many tradespeople knock off, something that once would have been impossible.

The change didn’t at first apply to Sundays, where lunchtime closing was initially only extended by an hour to 3pm, and even that was considered to have been something of an oversight by Parliament. However, this was increasingly undermined by food-serving pubs declaring part of their trading space to be restaurants, where they were permitted to sell alcohol with meals throughout the day. Eventually, Sundays were brought in to line in 1995. It is very noticeable now how busy many dining pubs are late on Sunday afternoons, which once would have been a dead time.

While many pubs with footfall throughout the day benefited from the extended opening times, others found that they were spreading the same amount of customers over a greater number of hours, and thus increased costs. Therefore they had to look critically at when it actually would be financially worthwhile to be open. This is a trend that has increased in the current century when there has been a steady decline in the overall business of pubs, peaking of course in the years after July 2007.

Before 1988, the vast majority of pubs would open for every one of the fourteen legally permitted sessions. The only variations were that many didn’t open quite as early as allowed in the morning, and they often opened later on Saturday evenings. But now we have a growing number of pubs that don’t open at all on one or more days of the week. Outside town centres, wet-led pubs are more often than not deciding not to open at all at lunchtimes, either on weekdays or even seven days a week. For whatever reason, this seems more common in the North than the South, where many pubs still keep to the traditional afternoon closure.

Of course much of this would probably have happened even if we still had fixed hours, but removing them has given licensees a blank sheet of paper as to when they feel there is any point in being open. I’d guess that, if you took a set of pubs in a typical area that have been trading throughout the 1988-2018 period, the total amount of opening hours would actually be markedly less now than it used to be.

One aspect in which this is most marked is delaying lunchtime opening. Depending on the area, the old system allowed for opening at various times between 10 am and 11.30. Some pubs wouldn’t open quite as early, especially if the permitted time was before 11 am, but virtually all were open before noon. The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists ten pubs in Manchester City Centre, where lunchtime opening was 11-3. None is mentioned as opening later. Yet, in 2018, of the seventeen pubs included, only three open before noon, and some don’t open on weekdays until late afternoon. It’s a bit disingenuous to claim that you’re “open all day” when you fail to take advantage of all the hours that were available to you before 1988.

Of course pubs shouldn’t be expected to open if they don’t believe there’s sufficient business, but the whole process of curtailing hours has resulted in a disbenefit to potential pubgoers, which is made worse by the uncertainty involved. At one time, you were reasonably confident when you could expect pubs to be open, but this is less and less true, and is made worse by the fact that pubs, even though they have far more diverse hours than shops, seldom display their hours outside. It’s not exactly very helpful if you turn up at a pub and find it closed with no indication of when it will open. I’m convinced that taking away the predictability of opening times has harmed the trade as a whole.

I’ve made the point in the past that many drinking occasions have always revolved around ritual and routine, something that was underpinned by the old system of restricted hours. The approach of either closing or opening concentrated the mind, whether it was the prospect of the shutters going down in the early afternoon, the early doors opening for that after-work pint, or the narrow two-hour window of Sunday lunchtime. If the pubs are open anyway, the incentive to have a drink now rather fades away, and sometimes leads to not bothering at all. Although the traditional Sunday lunchtime session would probably have been eroded anyway by the growth of other things to do on Sundays, in particular Sunday shopping.

There can be little doubt that the extension of opening hours has expanded pubs’ opportunities to sell food, but the same isn’t true of drink. There was no evidence before that there was a huge pent-up demand for afternoon drinking, which was borne out by what happened after the reform came in. It’s more the case that people had a fairly fixed budget to spend on drinking in pubs, which was then spread out over a longer period of time. Indeed, it could be argued that, given a largely fixed demand, the pub trade actually benefited from restricted hours.

All-day opening, or the possibility of it, has now been with us for thirty years and has become accepted as a fact of life. It’s impossible to envisage going back, and indeed when anti-drink campaigners talk of restricting availability they are normally referring to cutting back hours in the early morning and late evening, not bringing back an afternoon closure. Overall, it’s been greatly beneficial to pub users, and I’ve certainly taken advantage of it on a huge number of occasions. Most of the negative trends that have affected the pub trade would have happened anyway regardless of what had been done with hours. It’s certainly dramatically changed the landscape of how pubs actually function throughout the day, but it has to be accepted that change, even when generally beneficial, is rarely entirely without any negative outcomes.

35 comments:

  1. Didn't Scotland change from extremely strict to all day drinking in 1976; and did the absence of mayhem influence the relaxation of the English licensing laws?

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  2. Jonathan, I read that wartime restrictions were not lifted in Scotland until then, the poor beggars. However, that did mean that when that finally happened, more liberal hours than England were brought in. Historically local authorities there had more discretion than here too. They're having MPPU tried out on them just now, of course. It's a grim business this, tha knowst.

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  3. Some really interesting points there. The 4pm pint men are an increasing feature of my pub visits, particularly in towns where there's a lot of building work going on (e.g. swathes of Surrey and Berkshire). That at least means you get a good age range of drinkers.

    The other issue you highlighted was early opening. I recall a morning in Coventry in '97 when Mrs RM was doing a morning's work at Warwick Uni. I'd ticked off 3 fairly basic pubs around Spon End and Chapelfield before 11.15; all of them had Old Boys who I guess moved onto Spoons when those pubs gave up on mornings and lunchtimes. Great memories, except I guess for Mrs RM.

    Martin

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    1. Pre-lunch drinking has been hit by the growing view that, once a single alcoholic drink has passed your lips, you have to write off the rest of the day.

      I find the tastebuds are must acute at that time of day so, if the pint is well-kept, it can be the most enjoyable.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie24 August 2018 at 17:29

      Yes, and tastebuds being more active earlier in the day is more important to me than pubs being quieter in choosing earlier in the day.
      And I drink the same number of pints whatever time I start. It's just that I prefer earlier.

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    3. Many years ago, my dad said to me that the first pint of the day always tastes best. I was a bit sceptical at the time but, like many things he said, I can now see what he meant.

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    4. Aye, the 4pm ers are a fair part of trade in our village pub and all. It's a bit of a dilemma for the management though, because it fancies itself as a quiet locals pub-cum-dining place - and not bad it is for that either - but a bunch of strapping men in high viz jackets letting off steam sets a different mood even though they spend a few bob.

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    5. The Stafford Mudgie24 August 2018 at 21:11

      Timbo,
      That's the problem with nearly all pubs having been knocked through into one room.
      Diners eating in the Lounge and strapping men in high viz jackets letting off steam in the Bar would work very well.

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    6. Point taken Staffo. It doesn't apply in this particular case, being a several-tiny-roomed pub, but generally you nail it there I'd say. Incidentally, I see that there's been a sudden press feeding frenzy about the Spoon's dog policy? Maybe the supertanker of social attitude is slowly turning?

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    7. The Stafford Mudgie25 August 2018 at 12:57

      Timbo,
      I'm sure that dogs haven't given Wetherspoons the bad publicity that rodents regularly have.

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    8. "Touché", I hear the Bemulletted One murmur, Staffo.

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  4. I remember well having to order food at 3pm for 6pm on a Sunday to carry on with an afternoon drink!!!! Great post as usual and all day opening benefits the drinker but possibly not always the landlord who works longer hours and has to employ staff without necessarily reaping the rewards.
    Britain Beermat

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    1. Yes, that's maybe an under-appreciated point. With seventy years of afternoon closing, the staffing model of pubs was set up to deal with that. For many smaller pubs, a couple could cope with it, with help maybe on one day a week and on Friday and Saturday nights. Move to all-day opening, and you need to pay for a lot of extra staff hours for possibly no increase in overall trade.

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  5. Restricted opening hours were a problem for me when I was trying to visit every pub in Oxfordshire starting in 2011, this was made a little more difficult as I live in Coventry, and the centre of the county Oxford by train is a 50 minute journey. While the city itself and larger towns like Banbury, Witney, Abingdon etc were easy to do pub wise, country pubs were more of a challenge, largely on their geographical location relating to public transport, but also their restricted hours, generally the more remote the pub the fewer hours it will be open, this was a particular problem on weekdays, as some pubs only opened in the evening, which made getting home a issue, especially if the bus service was also spartan. The harder to get to pubs had to be done at weekends as that was the only time to guarantee some would be open longer. I've lost count of the times I've looked at a pubs website (Gastro pubs take note) where they are so busy telling you how passionate and talented the chef is, how locally sourced all the ingredients are and generally how Fabulous and authentic they are, they don't bother to tell you when they're actually open!

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  6. Thanks, you have cleared up something that was puzzling me. My children were born in 1991 and 1993 and I remember outings on a Sunday when I wished we could have had a drink in the garden of a country pub before going home around 5pm. Did not realise Sunday deregulation was later than 1988.

    Also remember a certain pub open on Sunday afternoons because of a restaurant licence; only food was crisps and peanuts.

    Used to leave cinema at 10.15pm; decent pub next door. But shut at 10.30 better to drive 10 mins to next area where it was 11.00pm.

    Bar in France, where I live, (also tabac) open from 7.00 am but shut by 8.00 pm except July and August. Also shut Mondays except for those two months.

    Used to stop for a couple of pints on way home from work, just after 6.00 pm in a very middle class area. Lot of men standing and chatting and by 7.00 bar was empty. Sure, later customers, maybe even same but a “wave”.
    Did have a beer at 7.00 am at Gare de Lyon after a slow night train; did not feel like 7.00 am to me but barman gave me a look.

    There were pubs open earlier than that near commercial markets like Smithfield where work ended at 5.00 am. Not sure if you needed proof of employment to get served.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie24 August 2018 at 21:32

      KJP,
      No. I often used the Smithfield pubs with their 5am to 9am licenses and no proof was needed.
      There were usually more bummarees in their blood stained work clothes than other drinkers in the Hope and the Cock Tavern but not in the Fox & Anchor and Newmarket.
      They were four very different pubs, the Hope with a lovely Victorian interior, the Cock with the best possible breakfasts including kidneys and bubble and squeak in a subterranean rebuild after the infamous 1958 Poultry Market fire, the Fox and Anchor the most upmarket with the best beer and the Newmarket a Punch pub not worth bothering with.
      Youngs in the Hope, Bombardier and a breakfast in the Cock and Adnams in the Fox and Anchor was a great start to the day before a 10am meeting at Waterloo - then it was a couple of minutes walk to the long established Hole in the Wall at lunchtime.
      Happy days.

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  7. Very interesting piece, as always. There were certain anomalies in the opening laws, if I remember correctly. I live between the market towns of Otley and Skipton (in Yorkshire). There the pubs were allowed to open all afternoon on market days. This made these towns "destination" towns for folk wanting a day out with all day drinking. Indeed both towns had many more pubs than nearby non-market towns (e.g. Ilkley where I live). Even to this day both seem to have a much larger pub estates than their respective population would normally justify. So perhaps that faint shadow of the past law lives on today in these modern day places.

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    1. I wrote a blogpost a few years ago about market extensions entitled Market Daze. I was never really in much of a position to take advantage of this, but I wondered to what extent it really did draw visitors to the town, especially when the extension was in the week.

      I'd guess the reason Skipton and Otley have more pubs is that they were long-established market towns, while Ilkley is a more modern spa town.

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    2. The 1978 GBG says Otley pubs could open until 4 on Mondays and Fridays (except bank holidays), but makes no mention of any market day extension in Skipton.

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    3. I think that one of the reasons pubs had longer hours on market days was to provide places where a deal could be clinched, paper work sorted; and, of course wet down the transaction.

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    4. Having been a a market trader briefly in the 1970s, the pubs around the market place prevented all your customers disappearing if there were a sudden sharp shower, or if people just needed to warm up on a freezing cold day. It's an all-year-round business, remember David. There are a number of good reasons.

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  8. Why don't pubs list their hours? This fact always has seemed odd to me.

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    1. Presumably so that they don't have to open up if they don't feel like it. The pub trade is unlike other retail where the benefits are mutual.
      But a publican is doing you a great favour by allowing you to drink in his pub, and you will do it on his terms.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie26 August 2018 at 11:25

      David,
      "Doing you a great favour ..... and you will do it on his terms" is how it is going to my doctor - but he gets £151 a patient per year no matter how he treats them all. The NHS isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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    3. All that said though the odd part is that even the pubs that seem well run and actually stick to pretty consistent hours don't post them. A restaurant owner I know says that sticking to set hours is one of the most important things a restaurant can do. I still find it odd that pubs that stick to their opening times don't post them.

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    4. Yes, I find it baffling too. Especially when pubs have gone to considerable effort to create web and Facebook pages and post full menus online.

      On that subject, another source of annoyance is pubs failing to display their menus outside. Restaurants do it, so why not pubs?

      I have some sympathy with DCB's view that pubs continue to believe that the normal rules of retail businesses don't apply to them.

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    5. David Brown touches on it if you ask me. It's maybe more to do with being able to close early on quiet nights though. As for the menus outside, there are so many ways in which some pubs cling to outdated ideas of "authenticity", perhaps rooted in "knowing your place"? You tell me.

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    6. The Stafford Mudgie27 August 2018 at 05:47

      "Another source of annoyance is pubs failing to display their menus outside" but maybe that's because they're as unsightly on the front of pubs as they are on pub tables.
      You don't need a menu for pickled eggs !

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    7. "But a publican is doing you a great favour by allowing you to drink in his pub, and you will do it on his terms."

      I think many publicans believe that and that's why they are failed businessmen.

      Never figured out why the beer bods accept it, though.

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    8. Not all of do. I rarely stay for more than a few minutes in a pub where there is no one behind the bar.

      Mind you I did once wait half an hour for a bus in The Bluebell near Tissington without being bothered by the landlord. Ate my sandwiches, drank my coffee, helped myself to a nip of whisky, put a couple of bottles of beer and some crisps in my rucsac. (The last are untrue but I could have)

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    9. We English are a strangely inconsistent bunch. We accept that running a pub, rightly, is a classless profession. You - generally - get middle class people running them for anyone who might come in, and t' wekkin' class running 'em for t' wekkin' class. Restaurants, on the other hand, many of us expect to be run by middle class people, unless its a sit-down chippy or a greasy spoon. So maybe if a working class publican put a menu outside his pub, he might be afraid that he would be judged by his peers as Acting Above His Station, and as Not Knowing His Place? (and don't try to tell me that the working class are not far more judgemental of each other in that way than the middlies are of them, thanks.)

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    10. The Stafford Mudgie28 August 2018 at 08:54

      Timbo,
      Yes, indeed, putting a menu outside a proper pub would be a bit like putting a carpet in its public bar.

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    11. Staffo, the working class as we once knew them are quickly becoming extinct. Some survivors still run pubs though. But the fact that they often think just as you do is a bigger reason why so many are closing than the smoking ban, I'd say.

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    12. The Stafford Mudgie29 August 2018 at 10:25

      Timbo,
      Are you suggesting that I'm a dinosaur ?

      Delete
  9. Nay, you might be a National Treasure, Staffo, but I'm talking about how times change, and why business models fail. Whether those changes are good or bad is another discussion, our lad.

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