Tuesday 14 July 2009

If pubs didn't exist...

Would anyone bother inventing them? I’ve been going in pubs (legally) for over thirty years, and over the last twenty of those I’ve seen their trade steadily dwindle away. Pubgoing has become something of a way of life for me, but when I consider the number of near-empty, dying-on-their-feet establishments I come across nowadays, I can’t avoid thinking that it’s not something someone reaching the age at which they can legally drink would really want to bother with. I remember when you’d go in pubs and they were usually busy, with a convivial crowd of locals and regulars. Not any more. Back in the day, you’d worry whether you’d get a seat. Now, you worry if you’ll be sitting in splendid, embarrassing isolation.

A short walk through Stockport town centre at around 8 pm the other Thursday night revealed five pubs with their doors closed that as far as I knew were supposed to be still trading. Discussing it later, it seems that some were in fact opening at lunchtimes and weekend evenings, but for a town centre pub to be closed on a Thursday evening is a pretty desperate state of affairs. Now, none of these were exactly the cream of the crop, but even so there was always enough trade to sustain them in the past. This suggests that even the pessimists may be understating the plight of the pub trade.

Getting on for 4,000 pubs have closed in the past couple of years and, looking around Northern industrial towns, I can well believe that is an underestimate. There must be as many again, if not more, like those pubs in Stockport, clinging on for the time being but not really looking very viable in the longer term. Yes, some pubs aren't doing too badly, but I can only think of five or six in central Stockport that could really be described as busy. And, when a pub is near-empty, you can’t really blame people for not wanting to go there, thus creating a vicious circle of decline.

Yet this collapse in trade still doesn’t really seem to have hit home – we still hear many folks saying “I went in the Dog & Duck last Friday night and it was heaving, so I can’t see anything wrong with the pub trade that a bit of good management can’t fix”, conveniently ignoring the five other pubs in the vicinity that have either closed down or are dead zones most of the time. I know this sounds pessimistic, but are we now seeing the end of the pub trade as we once knew it?

Over the next twenty years, I can see anything remotely resembling a traditional pub as the term is commonly understood completely disappearing. We currently have maybe 55,000 licensed premises in Great Britain, and that will at least halve. We will be left with restaurants in the guise of pubs, weekend circuit venues, niche beer bars, and virtually nothing else apart from the ubiquitous Wetherspoons, which have become a kind of licensed cafeteria. The idea of a pub being part of a community, or people just going out for a social drink, will be a thing of the past.

And no, this won’t be entirely the fault of the smoking ban, but history may well show the ban to have been the “tipping point” that turned a slow, steady decline into a fall off the precipice.


  1. restaurants in the guise of pubs.

    In my area, this is, quite simply, the only type of pub we have left (bar Wetherspoons and 18-25 targeted town centre barns, of course). Community pubs have died very quickly, which is a shame as that is precisely the type of pub I always understood as a 'local'.

  2. Some of the problem with community pubs is that they aren't as "open" to newcomers as the chain pubs. As someone who moved to the North as a young man, I found many "community" pubs to be very oppressive to me as an outsider. Indeed, I felt the same "splendid, embarrassing isolation" you write about. Therefore, at the time, I would stick to the "licensed cafeteria" of the area, to my personal and social detriment.

    Now that I am more established in the area I have confidence to use the community pubs for socialisation, and avoid the 'Spoons almost exclusively. A lesson could be learned from the place I frequent most of all now, which is the first I had confidence to enter as an "outsider".

    This pub has modernised itself to take advantage of the weekend crowd, but maintained its stock of local ale, and designed its interior such that one can find space to sit even if not part of the "established" regulars. Plenty of screens to allow everyone to experience a sporting event, if that's what they want, but space without and away from them if desired.

    The entire concept of a "local" pub as I see it is flawed; the concept excludes new business from new customers. There are lessons to be learned from the open plan, inoffensiveness of the 'Spoons philosophy, without making all pubs into horrible clones of each other.

  3. Dick,

    IIRC you hail from the Greater London area, where the process of "de-pubbing" is probably rather more advanced than in the provinces.

    But there is a crucial difference between a pub that serves a lot of food, and one that is to all intents and purposes a restaurant.


    I agree with much of what you say, and up to a point the "community pub" is a dewy-eyed invention of CAMRA that has never had that much foundation in reality.

    But the Stockport pubs I was referring to were all in the town centre and thus, one would presume, expecting to welcome casual and passing trade. Indeed one - the Chestergate Tavern - probably has the most prominent position in the town centre.

    The point is that the trade of pubs as a whole has shown a dramatic decline.

    Glad to hear you've found a congenial local, though.

  4. If that happens we will all have to band together and live in little pub based comunities.

    You grow the weat and oats, ill make the beer and im sure somone will bake some bread.

  5. Martin, Cambridge14 July 2009 at 21:59

    I agree the smoking ban has accelerated the decline of drink-led pubs, but I'm not sure I'm quite as pessimistic about the future of really good real ale pubs.

    For instance, the number of pubs in this year's Good Beer Guide that have closed during the last year is relatively small, and some CAMRA areas (e.g. Chesterfield) report a number of new or revitalised pubs.

    I seem to visit Stockport pubs most often on a Thursday (something to do with the price of the excellent nearby Innkeepers Lodge), and agree that Stockport is a bit quiet then, but even so offers an excellent range of quality beer.

  6. I was recently talking to the headmaster of a local sixth form college that believed he could encourage the students to take public transport instead of cars, because the kids are “into” green issues. I reminded him that his quest was futile. The kids will always want cars, because lads like girls and girls prefer to be taken on a date in a car than on the bus. Despite the recession prosperity rises over time, and whilst I could only afford a car in my last year of university, it is no surprise it is within the means of sixth form students now. My father bought his first car in his 30’s. Prosperity is a good thing, though it changes peoples expectations and desires.

    I was about to disagree with you for the same reason, stating the local pubs in my vicinity are indeed quiet, but many bars that you would refer to as “trendy” are busy and vibrant with mainly but not exclusively a young crowd. Boys like to meet girls and vice versa and they like to do so in smart fashionable surroundings. I’m not referring to meat markets, just the natural business of life. Then I realised that what you meant by pub had a very narrow definition. You had discounted the Spoons and bars that predominantly serve lagers. Your definition of a pub may very well be something that is either in terminal decline or simply finding its equilibrium at a lower level than is current. I could not tell you. I can tell you why I think many of the traditional pubs are empty. I and my neighbours live in nice homes and enjoy a pleasant standard of living. Our society is a prosperous one. Many of the traditional pubs are distinctly tatty. I like to socialise with my girl and she prefers venues that are a tad smarter. The local pubs are not a night out as far as she is concerned.

    I have often wondered why a traditional pub is one that is either in the Victorian or Edwardian style, and anything else is disliked by traditionalists. Before Queen Victoria, did pubs have a style?, and did people mourn its passing when pubs went Victorian?

    As for smoking, smoking is in decline, and none smokers don't like to breathe smoke. Ban or no ban, pubs and bars would have to face that challenge anyway, just as restaurants have. Though I agree it ought to be the landlords choice.

    Despite my moniker, I do like the odd pint of cask beer. I’m disappointed its largely only available in the traditional declining tatty pubs. I’d like a pint of it in a fashionable trendy bar.

  7. The problem is, the type of establishemnts that remain are only bound to be the ones that do the thing that the market wants.

    If that means a restaurant, then perhaps that is what is viable.

    I don't think society as a whole wants to financially support the "community pub". It's a shame, but possibly true.

    I think the "no drinking on a school night" philosophy is also at work here.

  8. There were 2 problems prior to the smoking ban which caused some damage:-

    1) Drinking and driving laws. Definitely had an impact, but personally, I think that's not a bad thing. Most of the impact of this was on country pubs.

    2) The middle classes moving to the country. The trade for pubs went down a bit and was replaced with carry-outs of wine.

    But the recent problems nearly all about the smoking ban. The pubs that are still managing are as follows:-

    a) 18-25 meat markets. You're out to pull or get pulled, so you can't just go to your mates house. You'll put up with having to go outside and smoke.

    b) restaurant-type pubs.

    c) pubs with gardens or courtyards for a shelter.

    Anyone who says that it's not about the smoking ban and it's about the recession or cheap booze is kidding themselves. The pubs that are closing around here are missing one of a) to c).

    Apparantly, a lot of people are now having rotas for buying booze in. So, three or four couples will each take it in turn to buy the booze, then the rest come round to drink it. No money changes hands and they can smoke all they like.

  9. @Dave. On the basis that the market provides what people want, because people are free to spend there own money, I don't think it is a shame. I think a greater shame would be taxing people to provide a subsidised "community" local on the basis that presumably some government authority knows what people want more than people themselves. Nor do I think that outcome is likely to conform with your view of what a “community” local is. It is likely to be the view of all manner of people who have never visited a pub but know what the great unwashed need better than they do. Sorry Dave, I’m happy to buy a pint in your boozer and not nick the glass, but I’m damned if I’m subbing you through my taxes.

  10. Dearest Cooking Lager, I think you misunderstand me. I do not think that "The Pub" should be made into some sort of nationalized industry, or be subsidised in any other way. I just intended to say that I think it's a shame that less people want to use the good old fassioned boozer. If that's the way it really is then so be it.

  11. @Dave and Cooking Lager,

    Of course, if you read the blog, I fully accept that the market will dictate what kind of venues are provided, and I would certainly not support and kind of move to subsidise or featherbed "community pubs". That could do no more than slightly delay their demise.

    However, as a small-c conservative I find the sudden dramatic decline in the mainstream pub trade quite shocking and disconcerting, which is why I made the post.

  12. @ Optimistic Cynic,

    In general I agree with your points, although on the drinking and driving issue I feel an increasing reluctance to drink and drive even well within the current legal limit also has a part to play - it isn't simply a fear of falling foul of the law.

    However, I would add a (d) in pubs that have a distinctive and individual beer offer, which allows a certain number of niche beer pubs to thrive in each town. It is noticeable how often the Railway on Portwood is busy when the nearby Queens is dead. However, once you get above a certain number, they start to cannibalise trade from each other. Fortunately we haven't reached this stage in Stockport and the Railway, Crown and Olde Vic all seem to thrive in their different ways.

  13. @Dave, my misunderstanding. Thank God you are not a socialist.

    @Curmudgeon, are you sure your narrow definintion of a pub is in this day and age, mainstream? Mainstream to me isn't an 18th cenury building with a shabby and old fashioned decor. Mainstream is a smart fashionable venue. What is to say a smart modern bar isn't as important to the community as a more traditional pub? Society is fragmented. Churches are only focal points of the church going community, not the wider community. Likewise pubs are only focal points of the drinking community with a distinct difference in taste across generations.

    My idea of a nice place to drink? Somewhere with waiter service.

  14. Personally, I was never bothered by shabby decor etc. in fact, I found it far easier to relax in such a place (not having to mind Ps and Qs, no kids etc). The pubs I always enjoyed had a dartboard, a collection of roadworkers (or such) at the bar, banter, and someone behind the bar who knew your name. In my area, it's these pubs which have died out dramatically in the past two years. I sincerely cannot think of even one that still exists in the same form (if it hasn't shut that is).

    Pubs used to be the working man's place primarily, but in my area, at least, it is now almost exclusively a middle-class night out where the prime focus is eating, and drinking is an afterthought.

    Just my opinion and all that. :-)

  15. Fair do's, Dick. But ask yourself where the working classes have gone. You'll find we are now middle class.

    The only people who get misty eyed about the working classes are the middle classes, many of whom like to pretend they are working class.

    Those of us who are working class are not in the least bit misty eyed. I enjoy my middle class income and lifestyle.

  16. Well, the ones at the bar I used to see are still about, and still doing the same jobs etc., they just don't go to the pub anymore.

    I'm talking about the guys who used to hold the pub together from 4pm to around 7 when they went home. The only time they came out togged up was at the weekend with the missus.

    I'm only talking about two or three years ago here. Their pubs are either shut or have been turned into a noodle parlour or pasta eaterie which just happens to sell the odd bottle of Peroni at £6 a pint.

    Not everyone wants a nice clean pub you can take your kids to and eat Ciabatta bread or Teryaki beef, with a Perrier and Latte on the side.

    I saw one of the old 'locals' from the pub I used to go to, the other day, he is coming to do me a concrete shed base next week (I'm shite at stuff like that). He told me his crowd don't bother with pubs anymore. The odd night at a working mens club to keep the wife happy but apart from that, he's indoors with offie beer and a Blockbuster DVD.

    I suppose I am termed middle-class, but my family is firmly rooted in working class South London, as are a large proportion of my friends. With my interests, I can take or leave the pub experience, but for them, a massive part of their social life has been ripped away from them.

    It doesn't matter whether it was the smoking ban, the tie, or any other reason. They have still lost the pub they were using for decades.

  17. There are certainly still plenty of working-class folk in Stockport who wouldn't be seen dead in a trendy bar, and who noticeably go in pubs a lot less than they used to, hence the closures and empty bars that I referred to.

    And they haven't migrated to smart modern bars either, as there aren't exactly many of those about, and those there are seem to appeal exclusively to the under-30s.

    This absolutely isn't another predictable anti smoking ban rant, but my observations do suggest that we are in the midst of a pretty dramatic and sudden change in the nature of the licensed trade. There never have been anywhere near so many closed pubs in my lifetime, and certainly weren't in the early 80s recession which hit working-class communities harder than this one. The pub was then seen as a refuge in a cold climate.


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