The Manchester Evening News has recently published figures showing the shocking extent of pub closures across the region since 2001, as shown in the table below. Seven of the ten local authority areas in Greater Manchester have lost a third or more of their pubs, with Stockport, which has lost 36%, actually doing slightly better than average.
Top of the list is Rochdale, where an astonishing 45% of pubs have closed their doors. This does have to be seen, however, in the context of what might be described as “changing ethnic mix”, which must surely also be a major factor in Accrington, which the Guardian recently reported on as The town where half the pubs have vanished. This also applies to a lesser extent in many of the other areas.
Neither does the decline apply evenly across areas. Tameside may had fared less badly than most other boroughs, but even so the area on its south-eastern fringe around Mottram and Hattersley must have lost at least 80% of its pubs.
Of course this trend has to be seen in the context of the overall decline in the pub trade. Over the period from 2001 to the present day, according to the statistics produced by the British Beer and Pub Association, the amount of beer sold in the on-trade has fallen by 45%. Sometimes it seems surprising, not that so many pubs have closed, but that so many remain open, although it has to be said that some of those that remain exist on very slim pickings for much of the week.
Whenever this subject comes up, inevitably some Pollyannas will pipe up saying that, while we may have lost a lot of pubs, plenty of new bars have sprung up in their place. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, and I’m sure if you took into account the total movement in establishments with a full on-licence, it wouldn’t show anything like a 36% fall in Stockport. The liberalisation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has led to a more fluid market that is more capable of responding to changes in customer demand.
However, the overall figures on the decline of the trade do not lie, just as you can’t point to the rise in the number of breweries as an indicator of the general health of the brewing industry. These new places cannot really be considered a like-for-like replacement for the pubs we have lost. They are typically much smaller, for a start, appeal to a narrower customer base, and tend to be in entirely different locations. As I wrote back in 2011, “How can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees?”
This also raises a question mark about these statistics and how they are compiled. On the face of it, they don’t appear to take full account of new bar openings. But, on the other hand, neither are they simply gross figures of pubs lost that were in existence in 2001, as otherwise Manchester would surely record a much higher figure than 7%. Outside the inner ring road, Chorlton and the Wilmslow Road corridor, large parts of the city have become virtual pub deserts. So it would be interesting to know exactly what these figures are showing. Are they including some new openings, but not others, and how is the distinction drawn?