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.