Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Don’t let the facts get in the way

For some years now, we have often seen assertions from sections of the beer commentariat that one of the main causes of the decline of the pub trade in recent years has been the policies of the large tied pubcos. However, as I argued here, there really is very little substance in this. Yes, in many respects the pubcos have been less than ideal custodians of their estates, but the decline of pubs has been due to a lethal cocktail of social change and legislative restriction. Running them in a somewhat different manner would not, overall, have made much difference.

The British pub trade today comprises a wide variety of different ownership models, including large and small pubcos, managed pub chains, family brewers and independent operators. If the pubcos really did have a particularly negative influence, then surely the other sectors would be doing markedly better. But, in fact, as Pete Brown points out in this article, over the past ten years it has in fact been the major operators who have done much better than the independents.

While everyone can point to examples of independently-run pubs that have prospered, there are plenty of others that have quietly fallen by the wayside, not to mention the huge numbers of pub disposals that nobody else has even sniffed at. Can anyone seriously argue that, under different ownership, all those beached-whale estate pubs and street-corner locals in run-down urban areas would have thrived? The reasons why one pub succeeds over another are completely different from those behind the wider decline of the trade as a whole.

The whole argument is just a convenient distraction from the true underlying issues. And it should always be remembered that, in the 1970s, the beer tie saved real ale in this country.

I also can’t help thinking that, in surveying the courses of pub decline over the past ten or so years, Pete as usual totally ignores the familiar elephant in the room...

49 comments:

  1. And I think that you grossly overestimate the size of that elephant.
    But there is no way of testing either thesis properly.

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    1. This wasn't intended to to be a smoking ban post. But there is an easy way of testing the thesis - allow indoor smoking in 10% of the pubs in any locality, and see how the relative trade goes. Also I thought Wetherspoon's had conducted a fairly decisive experiment before the ban came in.

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    2. I meant no way of testing from the extant data. And your suggestion is ridiculous: the puritans don't do evidence based studies, since they know best.

      Have you a reference to the 'spoons experiment?

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    3. The Laurel pub company had non-smoking pubs. Here's some interesting history

      https://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Article/2004/042/06/Laurel-hits-back-at-Tim-Martin-over-smoking

      Tim Martin wanted a ban because he knew his non-smoking pubs could not compete.

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    4. The Weatherspoons ban. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2005/jan/24/society.smoking

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  2. FFS change the record

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    1. Err, which record is that? The creation of this blog was prompted by the smoking ban. It was wrong then; it is no less wrong now. And, rest assured, as long as this blog continues, "The Song Remains The Same".

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  3. Yes, it is depressing to think that 10 years on from the smoking ban
    that there are about 7 million adults who don't realise that pubs weren't always a place for middle aged people to eat food in because they never got the chance to have choice. The smoking ban was a gross act of cultural vandalism that had the pleasant side effect of closing pubs for many of those that devised it. For example, the last Chief Medical Officer who threatened to resign if the ban was not passed and as soon as he got his ban published a white paper on 'passive drinking'.

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    1. Passive obesity next. The effect on health of sharing a double seat with a 400lb person all the way across the Atlantic. :-)

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  4. The Stafford Mudgie8 January 2019 at 14:59

    “Over the past ten years it has in fact been the major operators who have done much better than the independents” but that’s not quite my experience.
    “Can anyone seriously argue that, under different ownership, all those beached-whale estate pubs and street-corner locals in run-down urban areas would have thrived?” No, but ten years ago Punch and Enterprise owned a substantial proportion of pubs within several miles of me and the fact that they don’t now suggests that they didn’t make a very good job of it.
    Thankfully though quite a few of these pubs have been bought by Dorbiere, with four pubs in town now, and newer small breweries and these companies know how to make a success of wet led “street-corner locals in run-down urban areas”.

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  5. Mr Brown's comments are not supported by information obtained from the 2018 edition of the British Beer and Pub Association Statistical Handbook for 2017 which shows that in 2008 Pub Co's owned 28,900 pubs being 56.79% of a total stock of 56,900 and independent operators owned 18900 pubs being 33.22% of the stock and in 2017 pub co's owned 14,700 being 30.40% of a total stock of 48,350 pubs with independents owning 22,650 being 46.85% of the total.The remaining pubs were owned by brewers. It would appear that the pub co sector is shrinking and the independent sector is growing. To an extent the smoking ban was a relevant factor in the years immediately after 2007 however its impact has,as can been seen from the growth of the independent sector as evidenced by the statistics and by real life evidence with new bars opening on a nationwide basis,declined over the years and may,with the increased popularity of ecigs,which may be consumed on the premises with the operators consent,be no longer of considerable importance. The table appears in the blog 'Shut Up About Barclay Perkins' and I acknowledge that writer's research.

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    1. I used to think that the effects of the smoking ban would be limited, but have since changed my mind as I have seen the average age of pub users go up. I just don't think food outlets are particularly attractive to young people, which means every year there are 7,000,000 young adults don't understand the craic that pubs used to have before the last labour government decided to turn every pretty much every working class boozer in the country into pub themed restaurants. I also think it did not help that smart phones and social media took off about then, because young people don't have to trawl the pubs to meet each other any more, they just tap on their phones and meet up! It's just a shame that pubs are not the place to meet up but who can blame them, pubs are more sanitised, homogenised and lack the pre-smoking ban craic IMO.

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    2. It has forever changed - and diminished - the British pub. And, while the direct effect on the level of trade has probably worked its way through the system by now, there are plenty of pubs that are still open that are in a much weaker financial situation than they otherwise would have been.

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    3. Yes, pub closures do appear to be leveling off
      https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/business/activitysizeandlocation/articles/economiesofalesmallpubscloseaschainsfocusonbigbars/2018-11-26
      We shall see!

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    4. I was 22 when the ban came in so was relatively young. I think social change has played a massive part, as Mudgie alludes to above.

      We're no longer a nation of coal miners, steel workers, and ship builders who would all graft hard then play hard in the boozer afterwards. Young folk are going into different lines of work with no sense of camaraderie. In addition to this, not many lasses are going to tolerate their husband going out for 8 pints every night while she's at home making the tea and looking after the kids.

      I just don't think it is genuinely desirable for younger folk to sit in a back street pub when they can sit in nicer surrounds drinking the latest trend.

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    5. @Christopher, I take your points but I would add that you have been robbed of the chance to compare and contrast! And it was not just working class boozers that had intimacy,soul,diversity and craic before the smoking ban! The range of pubs before the smoking ban was far greater IMO and included non-smoking and smoking areas in about 60% of them!

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  6. Anyone who reads the anti-PubCo diatribes on Discourse will be astonished to hear than those nasty companies have increased their pubs while the number of independents have reduced. I thought micropubs had saved the world ?

    Pete at least gets closer to the truth than most, but unless you make it your business to visit unheralded boozers in unheralded towns (as do Stockport CAMRA) you're probably unaware of the sort of pubs most at risk to the smoking ban. Keep singing that song, Mudgie.

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    1. You do have to wonder how often commentators like Pete Brown and Roger Protz actually visit unheralded pubs that are off the beer community radar. Let alone keg pubs, or pubs that just sell Doom Bar. Or maybe even OBB.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie8 January 2019 at 19:52

      It's not just commentators like Pete Brown and Roger Protz.
      I think that only a small minority of CAMRA members, including the 'active' ones, actually visit unheralded pubs that are off the beer community radar - and that is reflected in how few 'ordinary' pubs that keep one or two cask beers very well get into the GBG.

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    3. But the number of smokers per se continues to fall, and has fallen markedly since the ban. If it were reversed, I question whether the trade increase amongst smokers would offset the fall among the majority, that is, among non-smokers. I doubt it. So what would be the point?

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    4. Why is it that antismokers always see the smoking ban in such either-or terms? Relaxing the ban wouldn't immediately mean smoking being permitted in every area of every pub, or anything like it, so there's no reason why any non-smokers would be deterred from going to pubs. But pubs would then be able to cater for smokers, which they're currently unable to do. And, as I have often pointed out, before the ban a much higher proportion of regular pubgoers were smokers than in the general population, and to some degree that is still true, even though they are treated like pariahs. By definition, prissy, health-obsessed people aren't going to spend much time in pubs.

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    5. So what proportion of your fellow countrymen and women would you say were "prissy and health-obsessed" then?

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    6. Quite a high proportion, from what I can see :-(

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  7. But why should Messrs Brown, Protz or anyone else for that matter visit these "unheralded" pubs?

    Playing devil's advocate here, the commentators you refer to, may well have far better things to do with their lives, or better ways of spending their time.

    Whilst not denying that once in a while you might stumble across a "hidden gem", you have to sift through an awful lot of dross to find the occasional good one.

    No offense to those who have made it their life's mission to visit as many of the nation's pubs as possible, but not all of us have the luxury of not having to work for a living, and many of us have a whole host of other things to occupy our time as well.

    The same probably applies to both Pete and Roger, so let's get things in perspective here and step outside of the "down-at-heel" failing, working class boozer, bubble.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie9 January 2019 at 04:20

      I don't think I was suggesting that commentators like Pete Brown and Roger Protz should actually spend their time visiting unheralded pubs that are off the beer community radar.
      What is unfortunate though is when well known commentators - and I am NOT accusing Peter or Roger of this - reflect on their experience of pubs and go on about how much real ale, and how many of them, there now is without a thought as to the twenty-first century real ale deserts in parts of the North, Wales and Scotland.

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    2. Good point Stafford Mudgie, but if I may say as one Paul to another that my remarks were intended as a general comment on the direction the discussion was heading in, rather than as specifically targeting commentators like yourself.

      Pub Curmudgeon did start his post off with a thinly veiled attack on what he calls the “beer commentariat” in general, and Pete Brown specifically, whilst throwing in a reference about his other favourite “bête noir”, the smoking ban. It’s not entirely surprising then, that Mudge’s remarks may have draw some criticism, even though I certainly don’t count myself as a member of the said “elite”.

      For what it’s worth, my own take on the discussion is there has been a complete about turn in the world of pubs and whilst, as Mudge points out, the beer tie may have saved “Real Ale” during the 1970’s, this is obviously no longer the case.

      The pubs which today make up what you refer to as “21st Century real-ale desserts” would have been bastions of cask ale, back in the 70’s, and I can remember visiting many such basic, back-street establishments as student, during those years. The majority of them were cask outlets, whereas many of the more modern “trendy” outlets, were keg-only emporiums.

      The roles have now been reversed, with much of the “working-class” pub-stock, lager and keg only drinking dens, unlikely to appeal to the serious drinker, but possibly of interest to those who enjoy the quirky or the “off-beat”. Some though, are probably best avoided for reasons of personal safety.

      The point I am struggling to make here, is that the world has moved on, and yet some people are still trying to look back to what they see as a golden age, which never actually existed. The smoking ban may have had some effect in speeding up these reversal of roles, but there is no going back, and anyone who thinks the changes can be reversed, is very much swimming against the tide.

      Complaining that the “beer commentariat” are ignoring the effects of these changes isn’t exactly helping either.

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    3. Nobody *has* to do anything, but if you're setting yourself up as a general commentator on the pub and beer scene you won't get a very representative picture if you rarely venture beyond beer-focused pubs in the centres of large towns and cities. And it isn't just "failing working class boozers", is it? It's also sports pubs, estate pubs, family dining pubs, village locals and indeed any non-craft keg pub.

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie9 January 2019 at 11:46

      Paul,
      I agree with you except your "some people are still trying to look back to what they see as a golden age, which never actually existed". I think that the 1970s was something of a golden age for those of us drinking in the Midlands and North where the great majority of pubs stocked one or two real ales that were kept well and cheaper than any other alcoholic drinks.

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    5. @paul "The smoking ban may have had some effect in speeding up these reversal of roles, but there is no going back"
      All it would take is the stroke of a ministerial pen, unfortunate the pen of the health secretary and the DoH is institutionally smokerphobic. And I certainly hope this blatantly smokerphobic piece of legislation is consigned to the dustbin of history along with racism and homophobia. Not least of which because I don't want to spend the rest of my life being denied the human dignity of shelter. My value as a human being is just as valuable as anyone elses and I have just as much right to smoke in comfort as anyone who wants to drink in comfort has. Denying millions of people the human dignity of shelter is just down right nasty and completely unjustifiable when it comes to smoking, IMO. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that smokers have suffered decades of systematic identity spoiling for so long now that they can't even see that they are being discriminated against , even the the smoking ban makes it clear as day, and I fear that if it were not for that fact that we drinkers are in the majority then the same would happen to drinkers too. The sooner the public health industry get the kicking that is coming to it the better, IMO, and repealing the smoking ban would deal a massive blow to them.

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    6. Unfortunately, the relentless torrent of negative publicity has created a feeling of self-loathing amongst many smokers, a form of "Stockholm syndrome". And they are one of the few remaining minorities who it's acceptable to mock and jeer at.

      Of course, the way trends are heading, it won't be too long before drinkers of alcohol are a minority in society, at which point the argument that severe anti-drink measures carry a political price will evaporate.

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  8. My, this has got really off-topic. Anyone want to discuss pubcos? No?

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    1. My local village pub is struggling. I floated a range of business suggestions to the landlord. Every one of them would be great, he said. It was just that they would all be a breach of his contract with Punch as it was then.

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    2. This story explains why:

      https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/fight-pub-companies/

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  9. I think a lot of people have a strong dislike of pubcos simply for their history of buying great pubs and making them worse. That literally seemed to be the business model for the smarter publican in the 80's and 90's, build volume and sell for a fortune.

    That seems to be a thing of the past and we now have a situation where food offering and getting the price right is much more important. That's not something a chain is always better at, but it must be easier for them to get it right.

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    1. Oh, it's not my purpose to defend the pubcos - there have been plenty of things wrong with both their business model and the way they have treated their tenants. But I don't think the argument really washes that some other form of ownership would have delivered vastly better results for the trade overall. I do believe, though, that we would now have a somewhat stronger pub trade if the Beer Orders had never happened.

      In any case, the market position of the big non-brewing leased pubcos is now much diminished, and they do appear to take a more pro-active role in seeking to develop the business of the pubs they have left.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie9 January 2019 at 12:21

      The "plenty of things wrong" with the big pubcos, and especially the way they have treated their tenants, resulted mainly from both of them having massive debts, I think from how or when they extended their estates.
      I agree that we would now have a somewhat stronger pub trade if the Beer Orders had never happened. Brewers tied estates always worked well with, I would suggest, two exceptions - that they didn't realise how many of their customers would detest keg beer, but within a few years all were brewing cask again, and that there were monopolies in some areas, which they were starting to sort out such as the Allied - Bass - Courage pub swap.

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  10. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at the time CAMRA, plus many of its members (including me), embraced the Beer Orders.

    It wasn’t appreciated at the time, just how well the vertical integration between pub and owning brewery worked. Breweries, both large and small had a vested interest in maintaining their tied estates in good working order, and many of the larger companies had their own direct works departments, specifically to look after their pubs.

    The same applied to cellar services, as it was obviously in the best interests of the likes of Bass and Whitbread etc, to ensure their beers were being looked after properly, and served in tip-top condition.

    We have seen many examples locally of pubs requiring major renovation and remedial work, following years of neglect at the hands of Enterprise and Punch. Their previous owners (primarily Courage and Whitbread), would not have allowed such deterioration to have taken place.

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    1. I wasn't blogging or writing a magazine column at the time of the Beer Orders, but if I had been I'm sure I would have expressed a certain note of scepticism about the Beer Orders. As with many other pieces of legislation, it wasn't properly considered what the expected outcome actually was.

      The first explicitly anti-pubco comment I can find in my column is this one from July 2000.

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    2. And your fears about unisex toilets are coming true, albeit not in proper pubs :-) :-) :-)

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    3. The increase in independent operators,which was I understand one of the aims of the Beer Orders and later licensing reforms seems to have finally come about,see my earlier comment. The Beer Orders are perhaps finally working long after their revocation. I had dealings with some of the former Whitbread estate in South Wales shortly after the Beer Orders came into effect in 1992,the standards of maintenance were not high. I believe that the pub industry is in a healthier state with the ease that new entrants have to the market and that customers benefit from this.

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    4. The beer orders seemed like a good idea at the time because they were, on balance, a good idea.

      Pretty much everything bad that has happened subsequently has been an unintended and almost entirely unforeseen consequence. I have seen virtually nothing written at the time warning that the breweries would divest portfolios and monster PubCos exempt from the rules and carrying restricted ranges would emerge. Nobody saw it coming. It probably wasn't even really on the radar of those who would go on to form the evil PubCos.

      PubCos are now the villains largely for the same reasons that the 'Big 5/6/7/x' were the villains back in the day. I generally avoid most of them much as I avoided Bass-Charrington and Carlsberg-Tetley and Courage-S&N pubs etc. 25 years ago.

      Plus ca change.

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  11. Cat we please get back on to Pub Cats ?

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  12. The Stafford Mudgie11 January 2019 at 00:14

    John,
    No, I don't think "The increase in independent operators" was "one of the aims of the Beer Orders" which I remember as only being about a guest beer right not changing ownership of the pubs.

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    1. It was inherent in the Beer Orders that some kind of industry restructuring would happen, as they required the Big Six (or at least those excluding Scottish & Newcaslte) to divest a substantial proportion of their estates. I have no idea what the authors of the legislation actually expected to occur, but it's certainly true that many in CAMRA naively imagined they would involve hiving off some regional breweries together with their associated tied estates, which was just never going to happen.

      The increase in independent operators has been largely a result of the 2003 Licensing Act, which made it much easier to open new licensed premises. It is nothing to do with the Beer Orders, which in any case had been rescinded by then. Undoubtedly this has introduced more competition and diversity into the industry, but it has to be viewed in the context of a virtual halving of beer sales in pubs since it was brought in, which can hardly be regarded as representing an industry in a healthy state.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie11 January 2019 at 00:46

      But wasn't it "to divest a substantial proportion of their estates" IF they didn't offer that guest beer right ?
      They wouldn't offer a guest beer right and then divested all of their estates rather than reducing them to the limit of 2000 fully tied pubs.

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    3. No, they were required to make half of any pubs they owned in excess of 2,000 entirely free of tie, which understandably they didn't want to do, as it removed the whole raison d'etre of owning the pubs in the first place.

      They could probably have coped with just having a single guest cask beer in every pub, especially since by that time the majority of beer sales in pubs were lager anyway.

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie11 January 2019 at 20:53

      Yes, I stand corrected.
      Nearly thirty years on I had forgotten that they had to reduce their tied estates to the permitted maximum of 2000 plus half of those above 2000.
      We all remember tenants being permitted "one brand of cask conditioned beer" but it was also "one bottle-conditioned beer of their choice" not that any might have taken such a BCA.

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  13. The Stafford Mudgie14 January 2019 at 08:41

    "The increase in independent operators has been largely a result of the 2003 Licensing Act [and] is nothing to do with the Beer Orders" is a very valid point.
    With the Beer Orders "it wasn't properly considered what the expected outcome actually was" but I doubt if anyone outside CAMRA expected the never-seen-before and never-seen-again guest beers in the "beer range varies" GBG listed free house in town to extend to most pubs.
    Ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs, then as now, wanted known and trusted beers rather than a random selection from hundreds of micros and it's the medium sized brewers that would have benefitted most.
    I remember thirty years ago managers at Bass Worthington, just before their Bass Charrington chiefs decided to sell all the pubs, deciding which attractive cask beer(s)they themselves could offer at an attractive price to deter their tenants from taking Banks's Mild or Banks's Bitter as soon as they got their guest beer right.

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